Monarch of all he surveys
Feature Brian Lynch is getting used to living in the State guest house at Farmleigh, where he is writer-in-residence this summer. Here he writes about life with an address in the Phoenix Park
'Did you know my mother?" On his first day as Minister of State with responsibility for the Office of Public Works, Noel Ahern can hardly have expected to face this question. Nor that it should come from the writer-in-residence at Farmleigh - the State's guest residence in the Phoenix Park, whose appointment he has just announced while opening CIÉ's art collection in the estate's gallery.
Ahern's answer is no. But of course the Brother knew her well. Celia Lynch had been, after all, a government whip when Bertie was only knocking on the door of the Dáil. Also, I'm from Glasnevin, next door to the Ahern kingdom of Drumcondra and, therefore, likely to be human. But as both of us, like all proper northsiders, are shy, self-effacing, unpretentious and don't believe a word of it, we are wondering what we are doing here. He admits that, for today only, he is reading a supplied script. I've got no script at all.
With the Minister is Sean Benton, the Commissioner of the OPW, the man with the most enviable job in the public service. I ask him about the long-derelict Magazine Fort on the edge of the nearby Fifteen Acres. He says that it's on their agenda, but it's a huge building, most of it underground, and it's tricky to know what to do with it.
Well, I say, it bulks large in Finnegans Wake, so perhaps it could be the James Joyce Museum.
Might rain fall on this seed? I hope so. This July it's certainly falling on everything else. Beneath the downpours a memory sends out a pale tendril. The school that I went to, Coláiste Mhuire in Parnell Square, used to play football near the Fort every Thursday afternoon. In idle moments - I was goalkeeper, not the ideal position for a near-midget - I remember wondering what church it was whose steeple I could see rising above the distant trees.
Memory is wired to circumstance. This one is switched on after 50 years because I suddenly realise I'm living in that steeple's shadow. Strictly speaking, a steeple is attached to a building, and this mock-Venetian clocktower stands a good hundred yards away from the main house. Also detached is my modest sheiling, a gate-lodge sidelong to a permanently locked gate by the Knockmaroon Road.
Somewhere in Sean O'Casey - is it The Pough? - there is a reference to Knockmaroon. Dublin placenames had semi-mystical connotations for that Drumcondra playwright. The 2007 reality of Knockmaroon, though, is less purple Celtic Twilight than Tiger. Apart from the night and day growl of traffic on the road, O'Casey would be astounded by how utterly Knockmaroon and environs have changed, and by the beauties, some not terrible, that have been born of the changes.
For a start, he could not have imagined in his reddest dreams a Republic in which an indigent northside scribbler is the sole resident of the 78-acre estate of the Earl of Iveagh. And whose next door neighbour is that Republic's President. We live together on a green island of privilege. But I doubt if Mrs McAleese is ever tempted to quote William Cowper, the hero of my novel The Winner of Sorrow:
I am monarch of all I survey,
My right there is none to dispute,
From the centre all round to the sea,
I am lord of the fowl and the brute.
I doubt it because all presidents know that true republicanism is impersonally jealous of privilege. Your rights, your excellency, are strictly provisional: every seven years they lapse, indisputably. And as for you, Mr Writer-in-Residence, the fowls and brutes on this estate - the pheasants, the black Kerry cattle, the donkeys - are not to be lorded over by anyone but the farm manager. The walled garden, too, with its abundance of drenched roses and rain-fattened berries, is solely for walking in.
Actually, solitude here is notional - CCTV images are constantly monitored in a control room somewhere in the depths of the house, and from dusk to dawn the grounds are tightly wound in a cocoon of electronic beams. Between these hours the only beasts that move without prior clearance are the foxes and the badgers.
THIS PLACE WORKS for its living. When you're up close to its hiving activity, the €29 million purchase price seems a minor bee-sting. Certainly, if the visitors - and there can be as many as 15,000 a day - were paying for the privilege of coming here, the State would have got the cash back by now. But access to Farmleigh is not a privilege: it's a right, and it's free.
The free concerts are the most exciting freedom. For my no-money the bands led by the Iranian Alireza Ghorbani, the Vietnamese Huong Thanh and the Colombian Edmar Castaneda were revelations. The organiser of these ground-breaking concerts is Gerry Godley and considering what he is doing to bring world music to Farmleigh and to Lyric FM, the name suits him.
Less freely accessed by visitors but, for me, the best of Farmleigh is the library. On my first day the librarian, Julia Cummins, shows me a first edition of Joyce's scabrous Holy Office. I feel lucky. In return for living here all I have to do is explore the library's 5,000 treasures and at the end of September tell the public what I've found in a public lecture. Plus I'll give a talk about what it's like to play on film the father of Daniel Craig, who's gone on to become the new James Bond. Come to think of it, I kissed him too. But that revelation must await my masterclass in screenwriting.
Actually, I'm lucky to have got this job at all. I applied because the novel I'm writing includes a chapter set in Farmleigh on the night before the accession of 10 new members to the EU. I submitted an extract but expected its escapades - anarchist demonstrators at the gates, a furiously anarchic musician within, blood on the floor of the room that commemorates our Nobel Prize winners - would choke the judges. I'm glad it didn't. But perhaps the OPW would have gagged on the bit I didn't submit: the confrontation between Cherie Blair and a fashion freak dressed in a butcher's rubber apron.
ANYWAY, THAT CHAPTER was completed before I ever saw Farmleigh. The section I'm writing now requires research. Although I'm on the second-last chapter, it's the first time I've done any. My previous novel was set 200 years ago. This time I'm writing about characters in their 20s, the same age range as my daughters - and I'm all too well aware that their Ireland is further away from mine than 18th-century England ever was.
The book's anarchic musician is a singer-songwriter. I'm a Sixties relic. Bob Dylan and Van Morrison are still my guiding lights. As far as contemporary singing bards are concerned I'm in the dark. So I head out to Blanchardstown shopping centre to search out recordings. This is an island on which Sean O'Casey would really feel Knockmarooned. Me too. Perhaps it's something to do with the mall being simultaneously vast and constricted - getting to it off the clogged highway, one feels like Jonah being vomited not out of but into the Whale. Or perhaps it's something to do with the fact that I sense the desperately smiling shadow of Frank Dunlop, my old boss in the Government Information Services, stalking the aisles of this cathedral of consumption.
Anyway, I find a record shop and by some miracle instantly discover what I'm looking for. Some weeks ago I heard a song I liked on the radio and by pure chance the name of the writer, Fionn Regan, lodged in my memory. I buy his album The End of History and within hours I'm learning the words of Be Good or Be Gone off by heart: "If you happen to read this/ Rose was born/ On the fifth day of the snow . . .". Nor is it just the one song: the entire album is heart-catching.
Of course the character I've invented has nothing to do with Fionn Regan, but as mine aspires to be a genius, and Fionn is one, I feel encouraged to go on with my own work. What else, if not to pass on the news of creation, is this business for? Guinness - which, after all, created Farmleigh - is good for me. But perhaps I'd better lie down now.
Brian Lynch will give a screenwriting masterclass on Sun, Aug 19, and a talk on some of the works from the Benjamin Iveagh Library on Sun, Sept 30. Both events take place at 3pm at Farmleigh. For tickets see www.farmleigh.ie or tel: 01-8155900.