An Irishman's Diary


SOME YEARS AGO I contributed to this diary a piece about my experiences growing potatoes in Indiana, US. This in itself is not particularly remarkable except to say that a few weeks after the Diary appeared, I received an e-mail from a woman – let’s call her Jackie – living in California, who had read the piece while visiting her mother in Glenageary, Co Dublin. She was struck by the degree of horticultural challenge that an Irishman in the American Midwest was facing in his attempts to do what every child in Ireland can do in their sleep.

She was also attracted to the article because she had an uncle and aunt living in Indianapolis, both very keen gardeners and who were also, like me, originally from Ireland. She had found my e-mail address via a circuitous route and her message asked me if I would mind getting in touch with them. Jackie had also lost the article and wondered if I might send them a copy. She included their postal address.

I wrote them a short letter and included the article. Within a few days I received a phone call from “the aunt”, who thanked me and invited me and my wife to come to lunch some time soon. This we did and met, for the first time, the most delightful Shirley and Michael Fry, exiles from Dublin who had both studied at Trinity College where they met, married, and from where they left for the US many years before, settling in Chicago and in Tennessee. Now retired in Indianapolis, Michael had lost none of his rich south Dublin accent, while Shirley’s announced her English origins, having travelled to Dublin to study.

At the lunch was, coincidentally, Jackie, who was “dropping in” en route from Ireland. The talk was of Ireland, music (my wife is a pianist), potatoes of course, and books – here I should mention, as it will become relevant to this tale, that I was, and am still, a seller of books, founding and owning for almost 25 years, The Winding Stair Bookshop Café on Dublin’s Lower Ormond Quay.

It was a pleasant afternoon and the first of many such gatherings at the Frys’ beautiful home, surrounded by a magnificent garden teeming with native plants, each identified with a scientific name plate. The garden was visited by a vast array of birds, balancing on the pendulous feeders, hummingbirds, red-plumed cardinals, finches, in all their various hues and colours.

Fast forward, if you will, to an evening about six months later and to my basement study in Indianapolis where my stock of books is kept. I was cataloging books that I had shipped over from Ireland for my continued online book business. Sifting through a box of illustrated children’s books from the 1950s I suddenly stopped and retraced the previous listings. Something had triggered a delayed curiosity. I took down the books I had listed over the previous hour and, re-examining them, found the one that had piqued my curiosity. It was a large hard-back illustrated book and there on the inside front cover where it says “This book belongs to” was scrawled in a large childish hand “Jacqueline Fry”. The book’s owner had, in the same hand, added a street address, followed by “Glenageary, Co Dublin, Ireland, Europe, The World, The Universe, The Solar System . . .” and so on. On the opposite page was evidence of the owner practising cursive writing, painstakingly trying to write their name in large bold script across the entire page three or four times. At the top of the page was, in an adult hand, “To Jackie, with love, Christmas 1948”.

I wondered. Though Jacqui had introduced herself to me as Jackie S, her married name, there was every possibility that she was also a “Fry”. I rang Michael and asked him did the address mean anything to him. “Yes, that’s the house where Jackie grew up,” he confirmed slightly bemusedly.

“So her name was ‘Fry’ too?” I asked. “Yes, Jackie Fry”.

It was clear that one of the thousands of books I had shipped over from Ireland, had belonged to the woman who now lived in California but who had serendipitously put me in touch with her namesakes over 2,000 miles from where she spent her childhood, partly in the company of the book I now held in my hand. I asked the Frys not to mention my “find” to Jackie.

A few weeks later Jackie was once again “passing through” Indianapolis, and Michael and Shirley invited me and my wife to lunch. After lunch I produced the wrapped-up book. She opened it, a little confused, until slowly recognition began to dawn on her face. Opening it she gasped, recognising her own name in her own unschooled handwriting. Then she saw the inscription and, visibly moved, said “That was my grandmother. She gave it to me . . . But, how did you come across it?” I was uncertain. As a bookseller I attended many house auctions, sales of work, rummage sales throughout Dublin and beyond. The chances are that I bought it at one such sale and had kept it all these years.

“But what’s this?” she said, looking more closely at the title page. “Who is Benedict?” Now it was my turn to be surprised. “That’s my son. Why?”

Offering the book to me and pointing with her index finger there was a very faintly penciled name in the top right corner of the page. There it was, barely discernible “Benedict”. So, my son had also read this book as a child. In the way of all good books, its appeal and enjoyment went on, down the generations, creating its own narrative, until it was returned to its original owner on a hot summer’s day in Indianapolis, over 2,000 miles from that leafy lane in Gleneageary where a young girl, destined to travel far from home, would learn to write her name on its end papers.

Who knows where growing the humble potato will lead?