'I learned about conflict from my parents.' So begins Christina McKenna's haunting memoir of her lonely early life. Recounting scenes from her childhood in Ulster, she paints a memorable and poignant picture of violence and oppression with her brutal father and protective mother, whose retalliation to her husband's meaness came in the form of a secret yellow dress. Her formative years and her foray into the world, which begin with the daily trudge to and from school, are peopled by a troupe of bizarre and unforgettable characters dancing in and out of her life, filling her with awe and wonder. Among them are Miss McKeague, a gentle, calm and graceful religious zealot, Great Aunt Rose, the 'Yankees', Norrie the transvestite and, in the wings, her stern, unyielding uncles, each vying for the ancestral money and land to the exclusion of all else. At age eleven, she experiences a frightening supernatural occurrence, a prolonged haunting that confirms for her the reality of the spirit world. Though it affects her deeply, she later learns to channel her confusion into twin artistic passions: poetry and painting. The discordant nature of Christina McKenna's young life, and the feelings of inferiority it bred, lead her to examine all the limiting belief systems she grew up with, and question the validity of the hidebound Catholicism of her childhood. This is a rite-of-passage account of two generations of Irish women, told with great humour and compassion. On the one hand is the writer; on the other the heroic mother who showed her love as best she could. McKenna concludes that our past, no matter how painful, need not keep us bound - once we choose love over hate. That choice, she suggests, will set us free.
Christina gives an overview of the book:
They were married in April 1946. The wedding photo shows a striking pair. My mother was beauty itself: pale complexion, lovely cobalt eyes and luxuriant, wavy hair that would stay stubbornly black till the day she died. In the picture she stands beside the seated figure of my father. His face is stern and handsome, hers wears a tranquil and knowing smile. This arrangement would be emblematic of their lives together: my mother always on her feet, the worker bee; my father forever the seated, sedentary drone.
Who knows what was going through their heads as they gazed into the lens and out towards their unresolved futures? I sense little affection in this image. They do not link arms or hold hands. They inhabit separate worlds. This then is not a marriage of passion but of need.
The camera shutter shuffles and clicks several times in Keogh Photography Studios off St Stephen’s Green. The scene is frozen and framed. They walk out into the bustle of Dublin city in their stiff new clothes and so their married life begins.
After the muted ambience of the studio the city startles anew. The brightness, the noise, and the leaden air. There is a collision of colours and smells: a mix of burnt hops from Guinness’s Brewery, the putrid yellowing of a smoke-filled sky and the stench of the Liffey. This stench is the worst. My mother feels unwell and my father is anxious. He rushes ahead of her down Grafton Street. He does not think to take her hand or ask how she is and, if he does, feels too awkward to put deed to thought. She has difficulty keeping up and collides with a cyclist, making him swear and swerve. Her new shoes show little sympathy for her feet.
She knows that her husband is looking for his older brother Robert, who has been waiting outside Brown Thomas for the photo session to finish. Robert has accompanied them on their honeymoon because he’s familiar with the city. My parents have never been to their nearest city Belfast, let alone Dublin. They’re like lost children in a maze and are glad of Robert’s guiding hand.
When they finally see him amid the crowd they both breathe a sigh of relief. He is easy to spot because he cuts an impressive figure; with his trilby, belted gabardine coat and serious air he resembles a spy left over from the war.
Robert acknowledges the pair with a brief nod and strides ahead. No words are spoken and they are grateful to see that he’s heading into Bewley’s Oriental Cafe. Once inside, they form a clumsy trio round a table, and after much hesitation order a cream tea. The air quivers between them. They feel this new experience as a panic rising in them, making the hands unsteady, the words unsure. While all around them conversations ebb and flow, laughter rolls and ripples, fragile cups are raised and lowered, forks sink through pastry making the china clink and ring. A whole symphony of sound and movement unfolds around them and they feel excluded, ill at ease in the carefree élan of the gathering.
Mother eases off her shoes and sighs. She reaches for a cake and is suddenly conscious of her red, coarsened hands. She’s twenty-seven and has been a workhorse for most of those years. She coughs to cover her embarrassment and looks forward to a better life – a life that will not include the endless scrubbing of shirttails and collars, the drudgery of keeping five brothers presentable. They’ll just have to find someone else to skivvy for them, and her mother will have to find someone else to bully.
With this thought a light snaps on in a new world, lighting up the house that she has planned; a home of her own at last. She imagines moving through its coloured landscape, making the contours of it fit the shape of things to come. She sees the sky leaning in at spotless windowpanes, sun-plated surfaces that shine, a washed floor drying without trespass, floral curtains, scented rooms, potted plants on sills.
She longs for that space that was pulled from her as she grew up and sees it now unfurling in the parlour she will sit in, the garden she’ll look out on. The urge to stay in this other world is strong; she lets her thoughts roam through the quiet spaces of her dream house, not wanting to return to the noise and bustle of the cafe.
But return she does, grafting her dream onto the man at her side, her newly acquired husband. She looks at him now and all he offered her: a handsome face, a promise of money, a gold wedding band and – perhaps most important of all – a ready escape.
So for your face I have exchanged all faces,
For your few properties bargained the brisk
Baggage, the mask-and-magic-man’s-regalia.
She allows herself a rueful smile and looks out of the cafe window, to the trams and carts of the homeward bound – a film with the sound turned down.
Spent cigarettes still fume in the ashtray. The brothers are talking but have made no attempt to include her; a river of words running past her, leaving her stranded. A woman is a foreigner in their company. It is hot and humid in the cafe and cigarette smoke hangs like a great amorphous witness over the three of them. Robert steals covert glances at the bride’s perfect profile and marvels at her beauty. He regrets that he couldn’t have made a shape himself and resents his brother for having achieved the elevated status of the married man. After all he, Robert, is a man of letters, has been out in the world; educated at college in London – qualified with honours – and is blessed with all the concomitant aspirations and awareness that go with these things. A flame of resentment flares up in him now, a flame that will flicker and burn in him for the rest of his days. He tries now to contemplate the implications of the married state, but his mind contracts. He cannot, or rather will not, envisage such intimacy and suddenly cancels the reverie with a comment.
‘Grand place this, asay.’ He gazes up at the ceiling as he speaks.
But Father isn’t listening. He’s parted one of the sandwiches and is examining the contents.
‘What sorta schaghey’s that?’ he asks.
Mother, being a woman, feels moved to respond to this culinary query.
‘It’s salad. Y’know: lettuce and tomato and stuff. . . .’ She trails off uneasily.
‘I don’t care what it is!’ the bridegroom snaps. ‘Wouldn’t fill a bloody rabbit, let alone a man.’
He closes the sandwich, returns it to the plate, and selects another for examination. Robert can no longer ignore his brother’s crude antics and glares at him.
‘Are ye gonna do that with evirything on the plate, are ye? We have to ate too, y’know. Could ye not conduct yirself when yir outtamong the people?’
‘Sappy lotta people,’ says Father, looking around. ‘Pack of oul’ pukes. And thir’s no need for you to be gettin’ so carnaptious.’
He wolfs the sandwich and takes a noisy slurp of the tea. Several patrons cast glances at their table. Mother, somewhat embarrassed and sensing a dispute between the brothers, rushes in to keep the peace.
‘It doesn’t matter, Robert,’ she says. ‘I’m finished anyway.’
Father, to the relief of all concerned, decides that he too has eaten enough, and throws back his head to drain the dregs in the teacup. He puts it down with a clatter on the saucer and announces, ‘Quare tay that. . . . better than that bloody British dishwater you get up in the North. They know how to do things in the Free State, I’m tellin’ ye.’
He now turns in his seat to have a good gape around. He will never be one to observe the refinement and dignity certain situations demand, being more attuned to the cock-up and the clanger. His discourtesy invites some strange looks but he assumes not to notice. ‘Not used out, just up for the day’ is probably the consensus that ripples through the onlookers.
Father’s hobby is carpentry and when it comes to furniture he shows an obsessive interest in how things are put together. He now thumps the back of the chair, gives it a right good shake and announces to the gathering that it’s about an inch off true and made of plywood – ‘only oul’ rubbish’.
A waiter hovers nervously, faces strain with astonishment; a tide of pink creeps up my mother’s neck. She’s shocked, but sooner rather than later will have to get used to her husband’s idiosyncrasies. Robert goes looking for the toilet.
My father’s forensic interest in joinery and his habit of attacking unsuspecting pieces of furniture in public will not diminish with the years. Once, while staying in a B&B in Donegal, my sister and I were summoned from our bedroom by an almighty thundering on the stairs. We found him hammering away on the banister, testing the firmness of its anchorage. He concluded aloud that it was only ‘an oul’ rickle’, oblivious to the fact that the lady of the house had appeared behind him in a speechless state, clutching at her nightdress and on the verge of -collapse. No doubt she’d thought she was being burgled – or worse. We mumbled our apologies, backed Father into his room and took the precaution of locking him in.
But that was later.
For now, for my mother, these things are a portent of what is to come. She is aware of a chink in the armour of her chosen prince. She wonders at this coarse betrayal – that inconsiderate display. Robert, forever the schoolmaster, sees her distress and takes control. He beckons the waiter with a nod and very soon they are out of there.
Robert now realises that his brother cannot be trusted in reputable establishments, and swiftly aborts a plan for alcoholic refreshment at the Gresham Hotel. Something needs to be done, he thinks, and duly adjusts his itinerary. So he forgoes the genteel tea shops and hotels in favour of the less salubrious cafes and much frequented hostelries. There are many pubs in Dublin and he now heads for the dingiest one he can think of: The Mizzen Mast, near Amiens Street train station.
Robert finds its atmosphere ideal: a nexus of Mickies and Paddies from the mountains and bogs, with their flat caps, stubble and toothless talk. Once inside, the schoolmaster can relax, content in the knowledge that his brother will blend seamlessly with this rough assemblage. His sister-in-law is not so content; what with her new pink suit and newly acquired airs, she certainly has no wish to spend time in this dive. But on an intellectual level she understands the logic of Robert’s choice. The men drink whiskey, the lady a sweet sherry. My father drinks for courage and Robert drinks to forget. And my mother, well, she drinks for luck. She really feels she’s going to need it.
One year later my mother was pregnant with her first child. She would give birth to nine more, her once youthful body collapsing and thickening under the strain. I came in as number seven. My youngest brother was born in 1963, and with him we as a family were complete.
Christina McKenna grew up in County Derry, Northern Ireland. She attended the Belfast College of Art where she obtained an honours degree in Fine Art and studied postgraduate English at the University of Ulster. In 1986 she left Northern Ireland and spent ten years teaching...