In an excerpt from her new memoir, Edna O’Brien returns to Ireland to build a house in which she hopes to avail of the “peace that passeth understanding,” only to find that even the best laid plans can go awry.
It was to Donegal, in the most northwestern tip of Ireland, that in the 1990s I headed, in order to build a house. The very placenames so rough and musical, the country dotted with lakes and hemmed in by the mountains of Errigal, Muckish, Blue Stack, Doonish West, and Snaght.
Stephen Rea and his wife, Dolours, were the ones who led me there, Stephen in his wry Belfast way saying, “It’s the best of the north and the best of the south without the fuck-up of either.” In this he was gloriously mistaken.
The venture would have its excitements and its obstacles, dramas and melodramas, and the getting of a site at all necessitated a wiliness to interpret that no might possibly mean yes and that any yes was equivocal. Overnight a site that might have been promised would next day be withdrawn, because of a phone call to a son or a daughter or a brother or a sister, in England or America or Australia, who opposed it.
In my ongoing search my solicitor Paddy Sweeney and the contractor Phil Ward trudged with me, often sinking into mire and quagmire, only to arrive on a spit of land that might, just might, be for sale. In Bloody Foreland, the gales were such that we were literally flung together and torn apart, like flaps of old newspaper. On another occasion Sasha, as future architect, was directed from the airport to where we stood on another bit of isolated barony, the waves hammering the headland across the way and more waves rolling ponderously around our feet. He pointed out to me that it was not only the shifting sands that were an obstacle but the hidden channels of water under the sands, so that, as in “Kublai Khan,” I would end up with a house that first floated and then literally was carried out to sea. I had almost given up.
Then one morning, in London, my friend Manus Lunny telephoned me to say that as his plane took off from Carrickfinn, he noticed a FOR SALE sign on a post down below. It was in a quiet cove, which the locals called Point, and already I saw myself there, availing of the “peace that passeth understanding.” That evening, I boarded the selfsame plane, on its return journey up to Carrickfinn, and had my first spectacular view of the county. It was like a moonscape, rock and water, and the vast basin of sea scarcely stirring. The houses, all white, were like dovecotes, set so snugly down in this seemingly washy tender archipelago. I would see those houses more distinctly as Paddy, Phil, and I drove along the sea road, the small houses with hall doors varnished red and loads of washing on every clothesline. Postcard picturesqueness. The evening was balmy, and down on the shore, fawn cows ambled about, the scene, in its simplicity and timelessness, recalling the paintings of Constable. Admittedly the Church of Ireland, a stone building on a hilltop, did look forlorn, and the glass door of the public telephone, swinging open, was the last word in desolation.
There it was, at the end of the road, the FOR SALE sign, no gate, a small overgrown drive, willows clinging to each other, and the little ruin of a cottage facing the Atlantic. There were two dwellings nearby, a cottage and a larger house on a hill, with sloping front gardens. Mount Errigal towered above the sea, streaked with whitish marble, like veins of new snow. They called her “she.” They said, “She’s shimmering for you,” and she was, the crystallized lava from millions of years before there to greet us. It was a secret corner where families had lived for decades, with the ingrained memories of a suspicion of the stranger, which I was.
What did I envisage as I stood there? Nice neighbors, getting to know the many facets of the sea, the seabirds, and perhaps a last sustained love.
Across from us the lights of Gweedore came on in twinkling succession, linking to the lights of the long low hotel, so that the effect was of looking toward a metropolis. Remembering that Maud Gonne had ridden on horseback among the peasants of Gweedore, as their cabins were being razed to the ground, I thought I would name my future house after her, except that in the end and accidentally it came to be called the Pink House.
Since I had left London that morning, two other parties had put in a bid, so that, as Paddy informed me, the sale would proceed by auction. I was on tenterhooks all next day, as I lay on a single bed in the small hotel, awaiting calls, which came regularly, as the price escalated. Rain slid down the narrow window with such swiftness that I thought I was in a car, with the windscreen being endlessly washed, and I questioned the common sense of my adventure.
By four o’clock the site was mine, and that evening Paddy, Phil, and I drove up there. A rainbow looped from Errigal across the estuary, bending its last painted toe exactly above the ruin. All three of us saw it and smiled. It faded slowly, with such cadence, getting fainter and fainter, the orange tint being the last to fade, a rind of tangerine. The men undid the padlock, pushed the door in, and we were in a small kitchen with a steep stairs to an upper floor. Everything smelled of damp and mold, since the place had been vacant for almost twenty years, and in one corner, on the mortar wall, there was a fresco that seemed to be a likeness of Christ, the Good Shepherd, in red raiment, holding a wand. I made Phil swear that no matter what alterations we would make to the place, the Good Shepherd would stay.
The site was thirty feet above sea level, and rather than have the rocks dynamited, Sasha decided that our “dacha” would be built on different levels. Many distressing meetings with the planning officer were to follow. We did not always see eye to eye, baffled at the insistence of “classic contemporary,” which was the vernacular of the moment. The house, we were told, must not veer too far from the existing tradition, so that the big rooms I wanted (more sprees) had to be housed inside a series of small buildings that ran on one from another, like a series of cottages. After we abided by all these stipulations, it was finally built, and would in fact be painted in three different shades of pink, as the local paint shop had only a given number of cans of each shade and we bought them all. Just before building began, I returned one night to Donegal on a hunch, suspecting there was foul play. When I stepped into the kitchen, even before I turned on the torch, the first thing I smelled was the aftermath of a recent fire; the walls were sooted and the Good Shepherd so charred as to be unrecognizable. I went across to my neighbor, an elderly woman to whom I had once spoken and in a spirit of camaraderie had given a patch of ground for her oil tank, which by rights was within our boundary. Her lights were out, her curtains drawn, and so I sat on one of the big rocks and wrote a distraught note, wondering if she had noticed the fire. Her letter to London, a week later, could not have been more reassuring. She painted a hypothetical picture, that since it was Halloween some youths from Dungloe (nine miles away) must have cycled up, seen the FOR SALE sign that was thrown on the ground, broken in out of curiosity, and decided, as a prank, to make a fire, one that unfortunately got out of hand. I both believed it and didn’t believe it. In the very next post, I got a letter from Birmingham which read, “We, the six sisters, intend to contest our late father’s home-made will.” This led me to fear that the purchase might be invalid. Other writers had moved into strange places and were warmly received. J. M. Synge, an author whom I love, had men and boys walking at his heels, telling him stories, girls giving him maidenhair fern that they pulled from between the rocks, and by fires at night he had heard stories of such imaginative pulse that they informed his great works. Lesser writers also wrote enviable accounts of settling in Provence or Tuscany or the Greek islands, whereas I was in jeopardy. The fire and the warning letter were mere preludes to sinister occurrences. Gorse bushes on a hillock in front of my house were also set fire to, and I received an incensed call from the elderly woman’s daughter, who lived in the house on the hill, ringing to tell me that our intended house was too large, it spoiled her view, it was out of keeping with the surroundings, and it must go.
Then one night in London, a man who did not give his name, but had a Donegal accent, rang to tell me that my house would fall, block by block and, moreover, that the cement that was being used was rotten. It was only then I learned from my builder that each evening, after they left the site, the cement blocks they had put up were being removed, before they had hardened, and thrown down in defiance. Phil, being a local, kept telling me not to lose heart and that bad feelings would blow over. They didn’t. A blue boat appeared in the mooring of our house, and letters to remove it were ignored. Eventually, a letter from my solicitor was answered by one of the many members of the clan, saying that if I were a decent countrywoman, I would cut out all this “bull” and hop along to my aged neighbor and put her mind at rest. It was impossible to know who was most instrumental in all the trouble, whether from this house or that, or a house in the hills that I hadn’t even seen, an entire community perhaps colluding with one another. My visit to the local Garda station was met with some coolness. Here was I an outsider, building a big house and incurring spleen with neighbors whom they knew well and might even be distantly related to, since they all had the same surname. Only with the threat of the court in Letterkenny, and the High Court in Dublin, if necessary, did the aggravations stop, but the hostilities simmered on.
The move came in December, and the sound of the big removal vans trundling up the narrow road was thrilling after four years of setbacks and stalled hopes. The list from the auction room where I bought furniture is testament to the extravagances that I went to. There was, for instance, a Chinese red lacquer cabinet, painted with pagodas and a garden landscape, on a gilt-caned timber stand, Chinese panels of parcel-gilt and polychrome, giltwood armchairs with two-seater canapé en suite, hand-carved ornate dining table and chairs, in mango and mahogany hues, along with suites of metal garden chairs and pear-shaped mirrors, etched and surmounted in Venetian style, with leafy cresting and foliate apron. The beautiful Gothic fire- place, made of sandstone, suffered a gash along its forehead as the movers dropped it in the short descent down the three balcony steps into the salon, but irrepressible as I was, I heard myself say it merely added an authentic touch.
I, who crave silence, had the quietest bedroom in the world, and all I could hear was the sheep as they nipped the thin pickings, between the boulders, in the field next to me and the whirr of the little airplane as it set out early each morning.
“Tara’s Halls” was how my friend David McKittrick christened it when he came with his wife, Pat, for a little house-warming. Carlo’s children, Georgia and Euan, eight and five respectively, were putting on a play. The preparations all that day were intensive: apart from penning the epic, there was the printing of the programs, which were then decorated in water color, the choosing of costume and props, and deciding in which wing of the balcony to stage the performance. It was to be after dinner, and we were made to stay at the “mango and mahogany” table, since surprise was imperative. We stayed a long time. Eventually Georgia came in, woebegone. Her brother had stage fright. He had taken off his war paint and his costume, which he had stamped on, and had locked himself in the Rock room, declaring that he was the most useless boy ever born.
It took endless coaxing. His mother and father pleaded with him; so did I. Sasha vowed to get in by the window and, what with that and the promise of double the asking price for the programs, Euan finally emerged wearing a man’s hat and a silk kimono with a buckle that with its magic propensities would be a significant part of the unfolding drama. Georgia was in white like a vestal. The performance, considering the buildup, was remarkably short, and the dialogue, insofar as we could interpret it, was a mishmash of English, Teutonic, and Elven.
“There . . . there” were his first words, as with much puckering and collusion, he pointed to the foeman dragon, who was represented by a fallen chair behind a curtain. The curtain, I should add, was a beautiful bale of lemon-colored tulle that I had intended for several windows, but that evening it was “All for Hecuba and Hecuba for me.”
The ensuing acoustic consisted of a lot of Naa Naa and Raa Raa, and the repetition of the word “Longsaddle,” which pre- sumably meant an imminent escape on horseback. The dragon behind the curtain must be put to sleep, by a sorcery from a cer- tain object. The object was a clock, one of the three clocks that had stopped since I moved in, obviously disliking the salt sea air. The clock, when put to the head, could stun a person. This we learned as it was put to Georgia’s head and she obligingly fell into a swoon. The idea was that she would creep in under the curtain and stun the dragon. Here she spoke her first line of dialogue, which had been dutifully translated in the program. She said nervously, “Sut an?,” which meant “How long?” Euan tried to reassure her, said his heart sang to her, then circled her face and forehead with the buckle as protection, and off she went. The parley with the dragon was mute, except for the ringing of a little Druid bell which had also been filched from my bedside drawer. Slipping out of character, Euan used the occasion to tie his bootlace, and then resorted to Naa Naa and Raa Raa until she emerged smiling, carrying two important things, a scroll tied with red ribbon and a white lace mantilla.
“Getting married,” she said, in a sweet, scarcely audible voice, while her brother, having read the scroll, formally placed the veil on her head, and then, hands joined, they stepped down off the balcony and out by a set of double doors onto Longsaddle and into the proverbial sunshine. The applause was astounding. There were five curtain calls, in which the porter’s armchair, chosen no doubt for its claw feet, represented the dragon. Every- one, including the protagonists, shed tears of pride and joy, the promised sums of money were handed over, and glasses, large and small, brimmed with champagne.
On that same balcony, Stephen Rea and Marie Mullen read from Yeats and Joyce for a program I was preparing for the BBC. One sunny Sunday, Stephen rounded up some gifted musicians, among them Neil Martin, who played on the cello his song cycle of the Oileán na Marbh, the Island of the Dead. It was music that he had written for poems by Cathal Ó Searcaigh, in which a mother of one of the many unbaptized children speaks of her sorrows and rage at the Catholic Church, which would not allow such children to lie in Christian grounds. In one of the accidents of history, some soldiers who had been torpedoed by German U-boats during the Second World War were washed in by the tide on that Donegal coast and were buried next to the children in unmarked graves. The loneliness of the music, coupled with the loneliness of the place and the sob of the sea, gave me the feeling that all was right and that I had settled in, yet the certainty could be undone by a night of storm when I was alone.
The storm had no regard for seasons, came any time, bawling its rage.
Waves powered by winds and crosswinds came roaring in, cresting, then toppling on the foam, as the next and the next onslaught came crashing in the same confused and angry froth. I went around checking the hasps on the windows, all twenty of them, and tucked towels in the jambs of the front and back doors. in the yard outside, the security lights crazily kept coming on and off, and through the kitchen window I saw that the willows had succumbed and lay in a heap. Birds dropped down into the floe, flung this way and that, and one, maybe a cormorant, was a mere tatter up there, a plaything spinning out of control, like a stringless kite. Rain sluiced over the ledges of rock in the yard, oozing into the Pink House and its foundations. I blessed myself and prayed for morning.
Mornings: clear as crystal, the sea silken, with every color to it, the pale blue and pale pink of the matinee coats that I’d seen in the souvenir shop in Dungloe, alongside the ubiquitous green marble Cross of Cong, and a miniature Belleek lavatory bowl with the sign that read FOR BUTTS ONLY. But there was no capturing these colors for long, as there would always be a bit of a downpour, nicely called “sun showers,” and the sheets on my neighbor’s clothesline would get a second dousing. I lived for those mornings, that primordial calm that comes after storm, the world, as it were, being put to rights again. I would go outside, the sands dove-white with the mimicry of the waves on them and scarves of mustard-colored seaweed drying on the rocks. Yet, storm or sunshine, there was the gnawing realization that I wasn’t writing that much. I would joke and say that the rooms Sasha had designed were too big, too palatial, and did not make for concentration, but I could have hidden, and indeed did, in the porter’s chair to keep distractions out. Places are at the heart of writing, and I was no match for that rugged world of crag and granite and scree. I inclined toward softer, leafier places, ditches choked with wildflowers, weeds, and convolvulus, small rivers where the brown and speckled trout ran. I could not imagine myself into it, its dictions too gnarled for me.
And so the day came when I was wrapping the glasses and the several ornaments, hanging torn sheets over the mirrors, emptying drawers, finding leaflets about caring for one’s carpet and novel ideas for cocktail recipes. Great stacks of cardboard boxes were already packed, and the sitting room had a sacked appearance to it. I jumped at hearing a light tap on the door. It was a young woman, one of the “six sisters,” who had built a small house on a hill above mine. She wore a long calico skirt and a white drawstring blouse with blown poppies on it. Her shyness was evident from the way she hesitated. I had often seen her in the years that I lived there, deft as a mountain goat, moving from rock to rock, and one Christmas Day, when she thought there was nobody about, she peeled off all her clothes and literally ran into the ice-cold water. She emerged a few minutes later, a verdant Eve, slathered with seaweed, which clung to her, the weed they called sea lettuce.
What impulse had made her do that? I would see her often in the evenings, with her tin can, searching the undersides of the rocks for mussels for her dinner, but we had never spoken, neither of us had dared to break the ice.
She came in, wondering if I needed any help, and before I could answer she had already begun to pack things. There was something I had always wanted to ask her. Had she resented my being there, those ten years? “Yes. Twice.” The first was when she saw a second chimney put in the gable wall that was the stone wall of the house she had grown up in. The second was the night we moved in, lights in every room, so that to her, a few hundred yards up the hill, it was a fairy castle from which she had been banished. There was one other small thing I had to ask. What had made her plunge into the cold sea that Christmas Day? “Ah now” was the evasive answer.
Piling the books, she asked if I had read them all, and mentioned the only one she had read in years, The Bridges of Madison County. Then her eye fell on an open page of one of the books and she read aloud: “The sea, and Homer . . . it’s Love that moves all things.” She liked it, copied it on the back of one of the cocktail recipes, and put it in the pocket of her long skirt. He was a tall man, a stranger from the Land of the White Nights and the Cloudberries, and the previous Christmas he had docked his boat over in Gweedore harbor and she’d left a daft note in an empty beer bottle that was on the deck of his boat, which was named after a Norse goddess. No, she did not dream of sailing the high seas with him, she would never leave that coastline, she was married to it, the way one cannot be married to a man.
Pointing to the low window, she said, “That’s where they laid my mother out, the night she died.” She was a child at the time. Her mother had given birth to eleven children in that tiny house, and she belonged to it, in a way I never could.
Under the stairs I found a last bottle of champagne, and we sat on the edge of the long table that the movers would soon dismantle, looking out to sea, not saying a word.
Country Girl: A Memoir. Publisher: Little Brown. Reprinted with permission.