Room to Disimprove – Frank McNally on the demise of the drawing room and other social tragedies

An Irishman’s Diary

The catalyst for CP Curran's book Remembering James Joyce, which we were discussing yesterday, was a haunting exchange Curran once had with the great stained-glass artist Sarah Purser on the steps of her Dublin mansion.

It must have been the late 1930s – Purser was nearly 90 at the time. And although it was midnight “she was reluctant to face the empty house”, so introduced a new subject to drag out the conversation: how strange the Dublin she had lived in for long now seemed.

She had been reading Liam O’Flaherty’s novel The Informer, for example, which made her wonder: “Was it now a city of brothels and pubs?” In her youth, by contrast, social life had revolved around “drawing rooms”, including her own.

Purser was famous throughout Dublin once for being “at home” every Tuesday afternoon. That didn’t just mean she wasn’t out. It meant she was entertaining writers and artists at weekly parties.

Born in 1848, she also inherited memories of an aunt’s drawing room in Capel Street, where in preparation for “parliament season” every year, the chandeliers had to be taken down and cleaned. The parliament in question was Grattan’s.

The extent to which the city had since fallen was summed up in Purser’s parting words that night, as paraphrased by Curran. “Was the life of Dublin now centred in the Palace Bar? So she gathered from her Irish Times [...] She felt chilly and grown old.”

Their conversation persuaded Curran that he should write down his own memories of Joyce and the Dublin of their time before it was too late. Hence, eventually, the memoir, republished this week.

Perhaps in the 21st century, literary pubs are now going the same way as the old drawing rooms did. The pandemic may have only speeded this process up. Still, by a happy coincidence recently, an email reminded me that, nearly a century after Purser lamented its rise to social power, the Palace Bar at least lives on.

The sender was John Clarke, announcing that after a two-year hiatus, the pub's back room will again host the (almost) annual Mylesday this coming Friday, April 1st. The event commemorates the death on April Fools Day 1966 of Myles na gCopaleen, aka Flann O'Brien, with readings and performances of his work.

This year's event will be preceded by the unveiling of a painting by Kerry artist Liam O'Neill of Myles and Patrick Kavanagh, another of the writers who frequented the establishment when Irish Times editor Bertie Smyllie was "at home" there, every night, circa 1940. Friday's main proceedings start at 2pm.

Another book launch, on Tuesday, took place in what must at one time have been one of Dublin’s finest drawing rooms, at 45 Merrion Square.

The book was "Burning the Big House", by Terence Dooley. And the launch was on the "piano nobile" of the Irish Architectural Archive, a late-18th-century building once the square's largest private home and on Tuesday still enjoying magnificent views of the gardens and setting sun.

Dooley’s book is about the fate of Ireland’s Big Houses during the revolutionary years, when so many were razed. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet but the launch was also marked by a fine exhibition on the subject, now running at the IAA until the end of April and accompanied by a series of online lectures.

Maybe it was mention of the piano nobile that reminded me, but the house of a previous Irishman's Diarist was among those burned during the Civil War. That wasn't a Big House, exactly, so did not fall under Dooley's remit. Even so, it was a similarly motivated attack, in that case against Free State senator Lord Glenavy. And as described years later by his son Patrick Campbell, it was not without comedy.

It happened on Christmas Eve, when the nine-year-old future diarist was looking forward to his first train set. That became one of a number of items Campbell's mother, the imperious Beatrice Elvery, insisted be spared from the flames. Gradually emboldened by the IRA men's mercy, she also negotiated the release of various artworks – including one by William Orpen – and other beloved items.

Not only did the IRA cooperate with her ever-more bossy orders, according to Campbell, they ended up making their own recommendations for pardon, eg: “Is that bit of a picture in the passage any good, mam? Is there ere a chance of gettin’ the legs offa the pianna, the way we could dhrag it out?”

Then they burned the house. Afterwards, train set safe, Campbell watched his proud mother, “bathed in the light of the flames, standing guard over a great heap of treasures in the middle of the lawn”.