Two Deaths in Rathmines

A memory of loss from the distant Dublin childhood of the writer and former diplomat

THE year after my father's death, on Christmas Day of 1927, was the saddest and loneliest of my life to date. Up to that day life had been a great deal of fun, owing mainly to my father's lively good humor (despite his long illness), his keen intelligence, and his loving attention to me. On the afternoon of Christmas Day, 1927, when I learned that my father was dead, life abruptly ceased to be fun. Fun did not return for more than a year, and then it came back only slowly.

The disaster began midmorning, when I went to my father's bedroom -- to which he was confined by illness -- to receive his present, a bow and arrow. He greeted me with his usual cheerfulness, and sat up to bend the bow. As he bent it, he suddenly turned deathly pale and fell back on the pillow. My mother must have known that he was dying, but I didn't. She sent me to fetch my aunt Mary, who lived about a mile and a half away. I ran all the way and found Mary at her door, about to leave for mass. I asked her to come at once, because my father was seriously ill. She was worried about missing mass, but when I pressed her, she came. We walked in silence, and she seemed preoccupied. When we arrived at the house, I learned that my father was dead. I also became aware that my mother and my aunt were consumed with what to do next. They sent me away while they talked. They talked for about fifteen minutes. Then my aunt Mary left, in an aura of strong disapproval, and without taking leave of me.

No one ever told me what was said in that discussion, but I can make a pretty good guess. Mary would have insisted that a priest should have been sent for, and should be sent for even now. My mother knew that whatever she personally might feel about the matter, my father -- who took his agnosticism more seriously than other Irish agnostics did -- did not want a priest to be sent for, and so my mother did not send for a priest.

So Mary left, in high dudgeon. My mother then retired to her room, "roaring crying," and remained there for the rest of that afternoon. During those hours my grief-stricken mother seemed entirely to have forgotten my existence. It was as if I had lost both parents, not just one. I remember sitting in the dining room contemplating the long, shiny mahogany table, and feeling that everything that made life worth living was gone forever.

The evening brought a considerable relief, with the arrival at 44 Leinster Road, Rathmines, of Hanna Sheehy-Skeffington and her teenaged son, Owen. The Skeffingtons, being agnostics of strict observance, were supportive of my mother in her decision not to send for a priest, and they were aware of what that decision must have cost her, and determined to help. Also, they were aware of my desolation, and Owen, in particular, was determined to bring me such consolation and comfort as he could. All in all, after more than seventy years now, I remember that mercy mission with deep gratitude. If the conditions of that terrible afternoon had lasted much longer, I believe I would have been psychologically impaired for life.

As it was, the Skeffingtons took us both back to their house. They sedated my mother -- as I now think -- and put her to bed. They fed me (I think my first meal of that day), and Owen put on a magic-lantern show for me. I remember laughing, not because the show was particularly funny but out of gratitude for being alive again.

I wasn't, as I soon found, quite out of the woods yet. On I think our third night at the Skeffingtons' my aunt Hanna called on me, in order to rebuke me in an icy manner that she used occasionally and effectively. My misbehavior, she said, was making things more difficult for my mother. Keeping the light on and reading in bed was part of the misbehavior. She then turned the light off and closed the door, leaving me in the dark, feeling somewhat stunned.

Fortunately for me, this didn't last long. About five minutes later the door opened again and Owen came in. Without comment he put the light on. He said good-night and closed the door. I waited to see whether Hanna would return. She did not. I now knew that I had a protector, and that he was the strongest personality in the family. I put out the light and slept well that night.

Years afterward, when I first heard of the Enlightenment, I thought gratefully of Owen turning on that light.

AFTER a few days with the Skeffingtons my mother and I returned to 44 Leinster Road to pick up the pieces as best we could. We loved each other, always, but were desperately lonely together at this time, in our own ways.

Let me begin with my mother's end of it, as I dimly apprehended it at the time. I believe I understand it more clearly now. There was first of all an overwhelming sense of loss, by reason of my father's death. My father's portrait, by Frances Baker (a pupil of John B. Yeats, the father of W.B. and Jack), hung at that time on the wall of her bedroom, and she used to kiss it every night before going to bed. That portrait hangs now in my home in Howth, Co. Dublin.

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