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.

If straightforward grief had been all, that might not have been too bad. But it wasn't all. There was guilt as well. A few days after my father's death I noticed on the table beside my mother's bed a Catholic devotional work, In Heaven We Know Our Own, by a certain Father Blot, S.J. When I saw this, I knew it boded no good, either for my mother or for myself.

While my father had been around, there had been no devotional literature in our house. It was understood that my mother went to mass and would probably continue to do so indefinitely (as she did). It was also understood that I would go to mass along with her until I made my first communion. After that I would continue to go to mass for as long as I considered appropriate. My father did not expect that that would be very long, and neither did I. At one point -- I think in the month before my father's death -- a woman friend of my mother's brought me as a birthday present a Catholic missal. In thanking her I said, in a rather stilted dictation acquired from my father, "It will relieve the tedium of the mass." My mother repeated this mot to my father, who was delighted with it.

That was then, when we were all quite lighthearted. Now was quite another matter. My mother was under pressure from the Catholic Church about me and about my father, and about Sandford Park, the school I was going to attend. I underestimated my mother during this period, thinking she was about to give in to the pressure and send me to a Catholic school, in order to abridge or otherwise mitigate my father's time of suffering in purgatory.

I was wrong about how my mother would react to the pressure, but I was right about the nature of the pressure that was being applied to her. It was Owen who caught hold of what would be called at another place and time the smoking gun. Owen gave me no warning of what he had found, but he addressed a family gathering about it. The formal word "addressed" about fits the tone in which Owen spoke to the family on this occasion.

In the period after my father's death our extended family -- consisting then of my mother, my aunts Hanna and Mary, and their children, Owen, Betty Kettle, and me -- used to meet regularly on Sunday evenings for tea at my mother's house. Generally the elders -- mainly Hanna and Mary -- did almost all the talking, and the children listened. Not even Owen was usually heard from. On this occasion, however, he had something he wanted to tell us, and there was dead silence among the listeners.

Owen told us that his close friend Christopher Gore-Grimes -- "Christo," as he was generally called -- had just been withdrawn from Sandford Park, which he had been attending along with Owen. Christo's father, like mine, had been an agnostic (also of Catholic origin), and Christo had gone to Sandford Park by his father's decision, just as I was about to do. So why did his mother withdraw him? This was the point of the story, as we all could sense. Owen spoke very slowly and deliberately at this stage. Christo's mother -- a Catholic, like mine -- had withdrawn her son from Sandford Park because her confessor had told her that every day her son spent at that school was extending the period of her late husband's suffering in purgatory. Owen stopped right there: he had no need to say any more. There was a long silence -- the longest silence ever experienced around our family table.

During the silence I looked around at the three grown-ups. My mother looked shaken but, I thought, a bit relieved as well, by something coming into the open that had been bottled up too long. Mary looked flustered -- unusual for her -- and, I thought, a bit guilty. Hanna, alone of the three, looked completely calm, and even serene -- something she was good at when she knew she was on a winner. Looking at her, and looking at Owen, I could tell that Hanna -- unlike my mother and Mary -- had known exactly what Owen was going to say, and had agreed to his saying it. I knew that Mary was being warned off the subject of my education. She was being told, implicitly, that the Skeffingtons believed that she had been abetting, and thereby increasing, the clerical pressure on my mother not to send me to Sandford Park. And I knew that a joint warning, from both Skeffingtons, was enough to resolve this matter. Mary was quite a strong character on her own, but she stood a bit in awe of Hanna. And she was altogether outgunned when Hanna and Owen acted in concert, as on this occasion. Hanna and Owen didn't always agree -- they didn't agree at all, for example, about the IRA. But regarding clerical interference with my education they were very much in agreement. They were presenting Mary with an ultimatum, with which I knew she would have to comply. She would have to stop abetting -- if she was abetting -- the clerical blackmail of my mother to place me in a Catholic school. That was very much to the good in this dark time. I would be educated in accordance with my father's wishes, and my mother was not to be tormented about the matter any longer.

I have often wondered since whether Mary actually had been a party to the clerical pressure on my mother. I would prefer to think not, because I liked her, in spite of a few bad trips, and I remembered her spirited anticlerical performance in the slaying of Canon Hatton, whom she had spectacularly defied over the schooling of the poor in her parish. Her defiance was immediately followed by the canon's collapse from a stroke, of which he died. But that had been a clash over essentially secular matters: class and education. My father's fate in purgatory, as determined by the place of my education, was a different matter altogether. I understood this to be strictly theological, a matter of the depositum fidei, the deposit of faith. The theologians knew what was happening out there, and no good Catholic -- however "anticlerical" on secular matters -- could go against them.

So I believe Aunt Mary did put pressure on my mother, and did much to make her life a misery, in the period before Owen's intervention. She would have seen herself as actually helping my mother, by abridging the period of her separation from her husband and of her husband's torment in purgatory, and hastening the blissful day of their reunion forever in heaven.

THINGS got better between my mother and me after the Skeffington intervention, but they were still quite fraught. As a matter of fact, they had become a bit fraught even during my father's lifetime. There had been a tiny incident lasting only a few seconds, which seared me at the time, and the memory of which has occasionally returned to haunt me even in my maturity and old age.

The little episode began as one of exceptional bliss, which turned to horror in a second. I must have been about seven at the time, and my father, who worked late on his newspaper, had returned from work somewhat earlier than usual. When he turned in, I was in bed between my mother and father, something that had never happened before. I felt so happy and secure that I did a kind of somersault in the air. Unfortunately, as I did so, my nightshirt fell forward over my head, exposing my naked body. Apparently my mother found this spectacle revolting. She spoke to me with sharp disgust, in a tone she had never used with me before, telling me to cover myself immediately. I felt as if I had been hit by an icy blast in a moment of joy and security. I cowered under the sheets. My father spoke in a calm, cheerful tone about some neutral matter. I was grateful to my father for changing the subject. But I wondered about my mother. Why should she make me miserable all of a sudden?

Years later, listening to my mother talk with her sisters -- cheerfully enough -- about their youthful convent experiences, I could understand the roots of her reaction. They had all been conditioned in the convent to a horror of exposing the person, as a probable occasion of mortal sin. My mother told a relevant story. As she walked down a corridor, a shortsighted elderly nun stopped her and peered at her chest. "Is that your person?" the nun asked, in a tone of horror.

"No, Mother," my mother said. "It's a slip."

"Slip" and "shift" were terms used to designate a female undergarment. In Catholic and sexually puritan Ireland these terms could be fraught with explosive emotions. It was the use of one of these terms which precipitated the riot in the Abbey Theatre, in Dublin, at the opening performance of J. M. Synge's The Playboy of the Western World. "Audience broke up in disorder at the word shift," Lady Gregory cabled to Yeats. My mother's encounter with the elderly nun must have occurred very near the time of the Playboy riots (1907). The term "slip" may have only recently come into use at the time, because the elderly nun seems not to have understood the word as a reference to an undergarment.

"A slip?" the nun said. "Well, don't let it occur again."

Quite a funny story. But the conditioning it represented was not always funny in its consequences, as I found when my shirt fell over my head.

The faint mistrust of my mother that dated from that little episode deepened on the afternoon of the day my father died. We should have been trying to comfort each other, I thought, but my mother was distracted by grief, leaving me with that awful table. I didn't then understand that my mother was under clerical pressure as well as that of simple grief.

As I look back on it now, it seems to me that my mother's resistance to that emotional blackmail and terror, and her unbending compliance with her husband's wishes, constituted a notable example of heroic virtue and fortitude. But that was not how these matters looked to me that Christmas afternoon, as I contemplated that table and felt, for several hours, that I had lost not just one parent but both.

IN the summer of my second year at Trinity College, Dublin, while I was living in rooms there, my mother had a stroke at home. When I heard of her illness, I ran from Trinity to the house in Rathmines. Later I could see that a tram would have taken me there quicker. I think there was a subconscious desire to re-enact, in a way, my run on the morning of my father's death to my aunt Mary's house. When I arrived, my mother was unconscious and breathing very heavily; she never recovered consciousness.

Conor Cruise O'Brien is a contributing editor of The Atlantic.

Illustration by Ralph Giguere.

The Atlantic Monthly; June 1999; Two Deaths in Rathmines - 99.06; Volume 283, No. 6; page 44-49.