Post 76 – Happy days in my Land of the Green Harp

It started in Limerick, where my grandfather Timothy was the Mayor and made toffees on the side. His lovely wife Fanny was a wino who persuaded their gardener to pop out occasionally to buy whiskey, which she hid under the bed. We moved later to County Clare, where my grandma Mary Rose had once carried secret messages for the local Fenian rebels. This was fine until one night the Scottish Black and Tans – most of whom had been released from jail as British and Irish soldiers fought on the front line in France – surrounded  my grandma’s house at Stamor Park and were about to set it alight when a sympathetic Irish cop with rank arrived and stopped the murderous auxiliaries.

I enjoyed school holidays in the beautiful Burren country that gave us weeks of rural bliss each summer – although there were also seaside visits to Lahinch and Kilkee, where girls might smile invitingly as lads blushed on the seafront. One day, I visited an old cemetery outside the town of Ennis, where my uncle was buried. He had worked as a bank clerk in Ennis, where he fancied an attractive young woman. But she had fallen instead for a more robust footballer, so my uncle migrated in despair and joined the wartime British Air Force. He kept in touch with the family in County Clare, but as he returned one morning from a bombing mission over occupied France, the Germans targeted his plane and downed it in the English Channel. His body was brought back by some RAF friends in civilian clothes and buried discreetly in the old Ennis cemetery.

There were difficult school years later with the Holy Ghost Fathers, where rugby dominated, and if you couldn’t play with aplomb, you’d be allocated to substitute or touch line duties. But I got on well with a nun who ran the infirmary, and I was occasionally sent to collect prescriptions for the holy sister. This gave me a chance to sit in central Dublin cafes and watch as interesting ladies passed by – with occasional smiles. I progressed to study medicine, but I soon tired of examining the skins of tomatoes and cutting up fish as we progressed through a pre-med year of physics, chemistry, botany and zoology.

The Archbishop was not happy about my then switching over, with my good mother’s permission, to the still mainly Protestant Trinity College, which was where my life really started. We had students from Northern Ireland, England, the US, Africa and Asia. But it was young women crossing the cobblestones on our Front Square who really caught my attention. As a Catholic lad, it was perhaps a little unusual for me to chat with Doreen, a delightful Protestant girl from County Antrim, whose father commanded a British Navy frigate in the Mediterranean. And then there was Harriet, a London socialite, who insisted that one should always tend more towards being a little adventurous with romantic interludes. I fell in love many times as I wrote short stories for small college magazines and occasionally drank too much when surrounded by excited student actors from our Players Theatre. This usually led to more adventurous excursions to the pubs off Grafton Street – and in particular to the one where actors, writers and poets congregated.

I fell quickly for a young Abbey actress who lived in a room above a newsagent’s not far from a pricey hotel on St Stevens Green. When she wasn’t acting on stage, she did bit parts for movies at the Ardmore Studios, and she quickly had me enrolled as an extra on a Somerset Maugham film where Kim Novak had a lead role. All that was required was for me to fasten up a newly positioned top button on a tweed jacket, which gave an Edwardian appearance of sorts, and got me a grin with a nod from the Hollywood director Henry Hathaway.

I eventually began to take trips out of Dublin and headed first for West Cork where a friend’s family lived in the once almost exclusively Protestant Castletownshend. The rural life from Kinsale to Skibbereen and in between had great appeal, along with warm winds from the nearby Gulf Stream. But it was in the Castletownsend pub that I met a whole new group of expat writers, most of whom had been attracted by Ireland’s generous tax allowances for people who tapped into their imagination to write stories – some of which rewarded the scribblers with decent pay cheques. ‘And you’ll have another Guinness maybe?’ one of them generously suggested when I had tried my first half pint of the enticing stout.

Could I perhaps write stories and live tax free on the proceeds in Ireland? It was indeed a tempting thought, but after a brief gap year job on the Athens Daily Post, I was recruited as a junior leader-writer on a London tabloid, which required that I should occasionally mock the Germans in sixty words while praising the virtues of British farmers in one hundred and twenty. I missed my lovely Land of the Green Harp, although I was still able to return occasionally for holidays that usually started in the pubs off Grafton Street and then progressed to the enchanting Burren country in County Clare, followed by maybe a brief trip down to see a tax-exempted expat writer or two in West Cork.

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