Between Foxrock and a hard place – Frank McNally on Samuel Beckett’s Cooldrinagh

An Irishman’s Diary

No doubt Samuel Beckett was joking when, as reported in our Property section yesterday, he told a later owner of the family's old Foxrock home: "If you ever meet my ghost in the house or grounds, give it my regards."

But residents of “Cooldrinagh” during Beckett’s childhood did include a ghost, at least in the opinion of one of the housemaids, a woman called Bridey, whose belief came to be shared by Beckett’s mother May.

The story is recorded briefly in Anthony Cronin’s biography of the writer, via the Manning family, who were frequent visitors:

“The Mannings thought Bridey was insane, partly because she was convinced that Cooldrinagh was haunted by an old man often to be seen sitting on a chair in the hallway. She eventually convinced May that there was some sort of a presence there . . .”

As Cronin makes clear, that Bridey is not to be confused with another Bridget, aka "Bibby", Beckett's much-loved nanny, although she too was a fount of "fairy and ghost stories".

A Catholic from Meath, Bibby appears to have supplied the future writer with the affection he did not get from his mother, who was afflicted with a particularly severe form of Protestantism (hence her son's "emotional malnutrition", as Mary Manning called it).

Whatever about ghosts, his fond and later eroticised memories of Bibby haunted Beckett’s thoughts, and some of his writings, well into adulthood.

So did Cooldrinagh itself, where he was born in the first-floor bedroom with the bay window – a feature much mentioned in the property pages. That too remained a lingering presence long after he had moved out.

Another feature beloved of the real estate copywriters, the 1.1 acre southwest-facing gardens, variously described this week as “mature”, “manicured”, and the property’s “real jewel”, haunt Beckett’s work too.

In his novel Molloy, the metaphysical detective Moran lives in a thinly disguised Cooldrinagh, with lemon verbena flourishing as it did in Foxrock, releasing “a fragrance in which the least of his childish joys and sorrows were and would for ever be embalmed.”

The garden's larch trees are also prominent in his writings, partly because, as another biographer James Knowlson notes, they mark the season of his birth. Hence the lines from Watt: "Born dead of night. Sun long sunk behind the larches. New needles turning green."

One larch earned special notice for its precocity, turning green in spring and brown in autumn a week before the others, a fact also mentioned in Watt.

It’s tempting to wonder how Beckett himself would have written up the ads for his old home. As a young man, he did briefly consider a job as copywriter. And his talent for sloganeering is obvious from the popularity of some of his quotations.

At least one professional tennis player now has a tattoo reading: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And surely you could sell marathon shoes or energy drinks on the back of another Beckett mantra: “I must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

As an estate agent selling Cooldrinagh, he would probably not have used such words as "leafy", "manicured", or "situated withing easy access of some of South County Dublin's most well respected schools including Loreto Foxrock."

He might not have mentioned the wealth of natural light either, if only because, apart from the bow windows, the house is said to have been rather gloomier back then, in keeping with its most famous occupant. “Flooded with natural darkness,” Beckett might have boasted.

In general, whenever he threatened to grow sentimental about anything, he checked himself with irony. Take this passage, again from Watt, in which he reminisces about the gardens, the surrounding countryside, and the passing seasons, amid a gradual encroachment of dark humour: “ . . . the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the pastures red with uneaten sheep’s placentas and the long summer days and the new-mown hay and the wood pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo in the afternoon and the corncrake in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the apples falling and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larch turning brown a week before the others and the chestnuts falling and the howling winds and the sea breaking over the pier and the first fires and the hooves on the road and the consumptive postman whistling The Roses are Blooming in Picardy and the standard oil-lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush and every fourth year the February debacle and the endless April showers and the crocuses and then the whole bloody business starting all over again.”