Summers before the storm


A meeting with a remarkable woman, and access to her notebooks and sketchbooks, was the inspiration for his latest novel, writes Dermot Bolger

Somehow, amid all the moves and turmoil of her life, the childhood summer photographs of the Goold Verschoyle children survived. Sheila Fitzgerald's sketchbook also exists, snatched from a bonfire when - as an old woman living an alternative lifestyle in a caravan in Turlough in Co Mayo - she tried to burn it, convinced that nobody would be interested in images of her family at play in Co Donegal while the new Irish Free State was awkwardly being born. As a novelist, I have studied those sketches for four years, still astonished at the vibrant joy they radiate, still trying to recapture the carefree life they chronicle, still stirred by how their innocent rapture offers no forewarning of the conflicts and tragedies that awaited her family.

There were five Goold Verschoyle children - physically striking, headstrong, raised amid a freethinking babble of debate where no viewpoint was taboo.Sheila was second born, with one older sister, Eileen, and three brothers younger. She was closest in age to Neil, the heir apparent, whose birth meant so much to her parents. Neil was her special friend, her confidant and minder.

Neil was set to inherit the family property as the eldest son of the eldest son, under a strict legal indenture that could never be broken. Neil Goold Verschoyle would reject his inheritance and become a vehement communist, move to Moscow and be forced to leave a wife and child behind during Stalin's 1930s purges, live and work and proselytise amid Dublin's worst slums and suffer incarceration in Mountjoy Jail and the Curragh Camp for communist agitation. He self-published strident pamphlets denouncing the evils of Trotskyism, renounced his privileged Protestant upbringing and isolated himself from the family he loved. Briefly, Brendan Behan's mother - who considered Neil a saint - sheltered him in her corporation home in Crumlin.

Few Irish communists renounced more for that cause, yet his name rarely appears in histories of communism.

Neil is an earnest, handsome youth in Sheila's childhood photographs. He seems a happy figure in the sketches of her family bathing off Bruckless Pier. So indeed does her youngest brother, Brian. They bathe, stage fancy-dress parties or enjoy glorious picnics on a neighbour's horse-drawn float. Brian wears comical hats and seems dwarfed by his older brothers.

Nothing prepares you for the fate he would suffer as a volunteer working with the Russians in the Spanish Civil War. Growing disillusioned, he was tricked on to a Soviet ship in Barcelona and disappeared. Imprisoned in Soviet gulags, while his mother desperately sought his whereabouts, he died in the hellhole of a prisoner transport cattle-wagon bombed by Nazi pilots.

Brian's name also never appears in histories of the Irish left.

Yet no shadows blot Sheila's sketches as her boisterous siblings fill the family home in Dunkineely. Their visitors' book shows people always crowding in to share that space. Cousins or friends from boarding school and local children who felt free to play tennis in the garden or wander into the coachhouse where Sheila had her painting studio.

In later life, although Sheila did not become as entangled as her brothers in politics, she too campaigned tirelessly for causes she believed in. Pauline Bewick remembers her in 1950s Dublin as a tiny crusader covered in flour hurled by an outraged citizen after Sheila took part in a protest. The poet, Paul Durcan, attended her innovative child art classes, which started his passion for painting. Other young artists, such as Camille Souter, found lodgings at her home in Frankfurt Avenue, with walls covered in paintings by children, sometimes on whitewashed sheets of newspaper when Sheila could not afford blank sheets.

Sheila's quest was spiritual, to strip away the veneer of complexity and strive - despite tragedies and setbacks - to grasp the joy at the core of life. She was still a bohemian alternative thinker at the age of 73, when I met her first in 1977. Her caravan in Co Mayo was an ark for stray animals and people. I was 18. She taught me to believe in my dreams, and my life was never the same again.

Art was Sheila's childhood passion, with Dunkineely children always encouraged to visit her studio and try their hand at painting. Her father, Hamilton Frederick Stuart Goold Verschoyle, a pacifist who supported Home Rule, treated every local person equally. A utopian barrister, who often defended locals up on petty charges without seeking payment, his passion was composing music. It was sentimental, in the period fashion, especially the tone poem in his unperformed Tír na nÓg symphony: "Far, far away, across the sea/ There lies an island divinely fair/ Where spirits blest forever dwell/ And breathe its radiant enchanted air." He loved Walt Whitman and carried Leaves of Grass in his pocket on family walks. Occasionally, he anonymously contributed to An Irishman's Diary in The Irish Times. He also contributed to the Dunkineely News, a fun-filled, hand-typed family newspaper edited by his eldest daughter. He loved cats, and his favourite black one, which sat on the piano when he composed, was christened "Guaranteed To Purr In Any Position". Most of all, he loved his wife and children.

His wife, Sibyl, suffered from arthritis, but loved to garden and paint. Like many upper-class women, she was fascinated by mysticism. Household decisions often fell to her eldest daughter, who, when the IRA stole the family car, visited the cottage where she had heard the local IRA was based, to plead for its return. Startled volunteers played her Protestant hymns on a gramophone until their commander returned and handed back the car. The IRA visited again one night to commandeer two bicycles, but put away their guns after Mrs Goold Verschoyle exclaimed that she hated the sight of weapons.

It helped that the family was related to the rebel Countess Markievicz, although some Northern Irish cousins were Orangemen. Sheila recalled writing poems in support of the IRA and her autograph book suggest similar nationalist sympathies in her siblings. The family looked forward to playing its role in a new Ireland, not realising how the new Ireland would allow no role for them.

The outside world began intruding on Sheila's paradise. The family's neighbour, Mr Fforde, regularly features in her sketches, yet she never discussed whether he influenced their destiny. The Ffordes were among a tiny Irish handful who belonged to the Baha'i faith but they began to preach a new doctrine in Co Donegal. A British naval officer, Fforde had converted to the Bolshevik cause and briefly moved with his wife to Moscow to work in a factory. Although an accident drove him back to Donegal, his zeal never wavered and he became a regular sight at fairs, making communist speeches while his wife handed out pamphlets. One can only speculate about his influence on the Goold Verschoyle boys during long rides home from picnics on his horse-drawn float. Today, his home in Bruckless is a luxury guest house, but beside the pier in the garden, christened "Paradise Pier" in my novel, a stone marks the unconsecrated grave where the Ffordes lie buried. Their inscription is stark and brave: "The immortality of the dead exists only in the minds of the living." Sheila's sketchbook ends abruptly. She wrote: "I stopped after the day two young men came down from the mountain. The arrival of these strangers brought the more complex world into our small oasis heralded the time to grow up." But I always wanted to know more about her life after the sketchbook ended: about her struggles as a newly-wed in Co Mayo, about her return to a dilapidated woodland house there with two children during the war, about her estrangement from the husband who accused her of living "in the ether" and about her quest for freedom as a separated woman and then a widow.

I wondered what motivated her brothers in Moscow and Spain, how her family was splintered by Neil's entrenched renunciation of the empty manor house he inherited, and how they all coped with the mystery of Brian's disappearance and never knowing if he was alive or dead.

Sheila often talked of writing her life story, yet I never realised how seriously she wanted to be a writer until I discovered her passport from 1968, listing her occupation as "writer". Beside it, a tattered page listed stories she had written and the helpful comments of the editors who had rejected them.

She was 65 when she applied for that passport, and travelling to cheap parts of Spain and Morocco, trying to write and live a full spiritual life, engaging with new ideas and people. Her notebook was filled more with quotations from mystics than with her own thoughts.

Perhaps - as she had found with painting at London's Slade School 50 years earlier - the more she tried to write, the less she actually could. Possibly she was trying to escape the pain of losing her beloved son in London in 1966. That pain was redoubled in 1970 when her daughter died in Kenya in mysterious circumstances.

Sheila returned to Ireland, where her sole grandchild would attend boarding school in Dublin. She bought a small caravan in Co Wexford, and lived for weekend visits by her granddaughter. Surely she had endured enough tragedy, but in 1974 her granddaughter also died while at home in Kenya.

Her granddaughter had christened her caravan "The Ark" and this was what it became: an ark for stray animals and people. She moved her ark back to Mayo. Here a friend prevented her from burning her childhood sketchbook as she cleared away the past to engage more fully with the present. Her sketchbook was published in 1985 as A Donegal Summer, with a commentary compiled from the transcription of tapes.

It told one part of her life, but there was more to tell. The Family on Paradise Pier originated in taped conversations about her life that I made in 1992 when Sheila, then almost 90 years old, still enjoyed her alternative lifestyle in her caravan. We discussed the idea of my writing a novel based on her life one day and Sheila preferred a form of interlinking vignettes, with some name changes and blurring of facts.

For years I hesitated to write this novel, knowing that I could never capture her unique essence or tell the essential truth of her story, as Sheila would have done had she been able to write it down. There was also the problem of what was the "essential truth". Denis, her middle brother who emigrated to South Africa and was Sheila's rock in later life, considered parts of A Donegal Summer to be inaccurate because - as a well-loved and respected historian and member of Donegal Historical Society who maintained a lifelong passion for Donegal and was deeply affected by Brian's death - he remembered their childhood differently.

Whose truth could I tell? If Sheila's impressionist memories were inaccurate on one level, a historian's logic might create a reality that Sheila could not identify with. I struggled with these dilemmas and with my discovery of facts - even from MI5 files - that contradicted Sheila's memories. There is the further contradiction between fiction and reality. Novels have an eventual logic and make sense, whereas our lives rarely do. After two years' work I had to start again, this time first and foremost as a novelist.

I took courage from a line by Sheila about admiring artists with the courage to create something new. The Family on Paradise Pier deliberately plays with aspects of reality.

I changed the first names to show that the siblings were recreations shaped by my own imagination, but retained the family name (now happily re- established in Ireland) because the Goold Verschoyle children were unique. My wilful blurring of reality (for example, when the famous communist suffragette, Madame Despard, gets burned out by a Catholic mob several years too soon but the communist Jim Gralton enjoys his native Co Leitrim for longer than de Valera allowed) may frustrate historians. So too may the roles played by Brendan and Kathleen Behan, Charlie Donnelly, Patrick Belton TD, Charles Haughey and others - but these allowed me to explore the wider Ireland between 1915 and 1946.

Fiction can never tell the full truth, but perhaps it tells different, equally important truths. Biographies may not tell the full truth either, because our experience is funnelled through whatever version of truth we decide to construct from selected memories.

Sheila died in 2000 in Wexford. At her request her body was taken to Dublin by young friends not in a hearse or conventional coffin but in a plain wooden box lovingly painted in bright colours. In Glasnevin Crematorium no clergyman spoke but Tennyson's Crossing the Bar was recited before the body she had outgrown entered the flames to the joyous final chorus of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Sheila's hand-made coffin looked like a small boat that would cause only the barest ripple.

Only afterwards did her friends realise how that ripple had spread out across her lifetime to touch distant shores and how it still keeps moving on its own course long after many of the seemingly great waves of her time have died away.

The Family on Paradise Pier, by Dermot Bolger, will be published by Fourth Estate on Apr 4, £10.99. Dermot Bolger will read from the novel tomorrow evening at London's South Bank Centre