As part of Poetry Day Ireland, we present A Moving House by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, an autiobiographical essay from the famed Irish post on her family's move into the warden's house at UCC in 1949.
The main humanities building in University College Cork, the university where I studied and still visit, is a large cruciform block built on the site of the house, now demolished, which was the official residence of the warden of the Honan Hostel. The hostel itself was a monument to various shifting currents in Irish history. It was built beside the institution known as 'the College', one of the ‘godless’ Queen’s Colleges founded in 1845, supposed to rescue the Irish at one stroke from ignorance and sectarianism, with distinguished professors and a rule forbidding institutional allegiance to any religious group. Thus it was differentiated at once from the Church of Ireland stronghold of Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1592, and presently from the Catholic University of JH Newman and GM Hopkins, founded in 1851, also in Dublin.
Not only Catholics resisted the non-sectarian ethos. The hostel had started life as Berkeley Hall, a residence for Protestant students attending the university. Resident Protestant students declined in numbers and the hall was closed, later taken over by the Franciscan order of friars (their students attended the college), who didn’t last even as long as the Berkeleyans. In 1913 a rich lady, Isabella Honan, left her money to a Catholic clergyman, Sir John O’Connell, to spend on education. He bought and refurbished the hostel, which thebecame a residence for Catholic male students, and built a Catholic chapel, which still stands on the grounds. The house that had been the dean of residence’s, and later the friary (books stamped The Friary, St Anthony’s Hall, included a complete run of Dickens), in 1915 became the warden’s house, and the warden for the first time was a layman. My father, who was a professor of Irish, was appointed warden in 1949.
Until I was eleven or so, the house was my way of understanding the world, its differences and boundaries, and how they were not always there.
Most of my parents’ thirty years of marriage was spent in my father’s native city. For fourteen of those twenty-three years in Cork, we – my parents, my younger sister and I, presently joined by our younger brother – lived in that now vanished house. When we moved in in 1949 I was almost 7. We came from a pleasant small one-storey house on the Model Farm Road with a largish garden to front and rear. My sister lamented the change but I remember no regrets. I had always wanted a house with stairs and this one had three impressive flights. As the eldest too I felt an obligation to be positive. What was different in the new house? Apart from the size of the rooms, their number and names – the telephone room, the onion room, the attics – the doors into the hostel itself, the twenty-three apple trees in the garden?
Our old house was owned by my parents. They had moved there before I was born, when it was new; they had created the garden and we knew when certain trees had been planted and why. Moving there, they had left the old suburb of the Douglas Road, where my aunts and, for their last couple of surviving years, my grandparents lived, and I know my mother was glad to escape from the rented house that was so near his family. Wartime petrol shortages may have reduced visiting somewhat too. But as children we liked our aunts’ home – they had stairs.
They – the three lay aunts, there were three more in convents – also had rather more, even, than was then usual, of the standard religious impedimenta of the day – the holy water fonts, vividly coloured crucifixes, votive lights, plaster statues, souvenirs from Lourdes, a big painting of the crucifixion in the main bedroom and a large portrait of the Dublin ascetic Matt Talbot over the dining table. The house was called St Joseph’s: my grandmother had had seven children in under ten years, and my mother said that her devotion to St Joseph, who had just one stepchild, was a form of contraception. In our house we had a few Dürer saints and one dark monochrome carved-wood crucifix; my mother would not tolerate plaster. No wonder I became obsessed with devotional artefacts.
I never saw my mother or father downstairs in that house other than fully dressed, and we learned not to appear in nightclothes and when not to appear at all.
Our house on the Model Farm Road was called Tulach Óg, after the coronation mound of the O’Neill kings. It remains in my memory as a permeable place. We ran in the garden and hurt our knees and ran indoors to be comforted. My mother rode out on her bicycle dangling her cello. Visitors, a gardener, a regular beggarman came and went. We had nightmares and rushed into our parents’ bedroom in the dark and they told us how cold we felt. The cat, Killarney Jim, dragged a rat in from the garden, took refuge under the kitchen stove and dared anyone to take it from him. My father worked on his PhD on the dining-room table and I was sent in to make him clear it away so we could have our tea. I had no sense of any difference in ownership between the parts of the house, though there was a maid’s room with a maid in it, later taken over by Miss O’Neill, the nurse, who was called Miss O’Neill to make the point that she was not a maid.
That point immediately became more evident when we moved to the warden’s house. It was a place of hierarchies and borders and structured visibilities. Now my father was ‘the Professor’ or ‘the Warden’ and he had a study to prove it – originally with wallpaper faked to look like dark wood panelling, which my mother soon got rid of. Now there was a maid’s room reached by the back stairs, which rose from the boiler room, paused at a corridor with, originally, two maids’ rooms (one was the onion room, which became a music practice room later) and a mysterious door at the end, and then after a few more steps debouched outside the drawing-room door. Miss O’Neill had a room beside ours, reached by the main stairs. Mrs Cotter came in by the day.
Neither servants nor children were to be on show at untoward times. I never saw my mother or father downstairs in that house other than fully dressed, and we learned not to appear in nightclothes and when not to appear at all. When the bishop came, Miss O’Neill kept us upstairs, and the maid brought in tea to the dining room, where the governors, chaired by the bishop, sat around the table with my father and his big minute book. Under the carpet there was a bell push so the maid could be summoned discreetly. Or on an ordinary evening there might be a student or two or three waiting to see my father in the large hall outside his study. The doors of the hostel were locked at eleven each night and anyone who wanted to stay out later had to come and ask for a key. In the rooms upstairs the furniture that came from Tulach Óg looked small and was joined by bigger, firmer sofas and extra tables.
Our house, like the convent school, like the space around the chapel, was a place where sacred and secular met, and the encounter was visible, even in an Ireland where normal life and Catholic religion often seemed coterminous.
(An effect I am suddenly aware of looking back is a change of the patterns of language. In our old house there was what felt like an easy swinging back and forth between Irish and English. Now there were extra people and extra business was being done, in English. Irish became more of an aspiration and speaking it was something one was accused of doing, or not doing – there didn’t seem to be a right way of handling it. Much of this of course was just the effect of time passing. We were reading more and there were more books in English. My mother was beginning to make a career as a writer in English after publishing a couple of books in Irish. We were moved from a school that was supposed to be Irish-speaking – my father couldn’t take their atrocious grammar – to a convent school where Irish was a ‘subject’ not a medium. And similarly we as girls were becoming more self-conscious and recoiling from strange – young and often clumsy – male presences, not wanting to be seen at a disadvantage. But the house also played its part).
The house had been a friary, it had been a Victorian dean’s residence. It was of the same vintage as the convents we frequented when visiting the veiled aunts, and the same as our convent school. It registered vanished ideas about housekeeping (the bell board in the kitchen showing which bedroom had signalled) and still-active notions of the institutional roles and responsibilities of education, my father in loco parentis, and it broadcast a strong message about private and public spheres. Until we were old enough to have a latchkey, we children went in by the back door, through the cloakroom with the maid’s bathroom, into the back of the hall. If you were a visitor you rang the front doorbell and the maid answered. There was an outside hall with a set of coloured glass panels which gave time for whoever was in the inner hall to whisk out of the way. There was a hard ornate chair in the inner hall, and the main stairs, but the hall then continued to the back of the house where you had no business unless invited to dinner.
Upstairs there was the drawing room where my mother sat and wrote every day from eleven to one – her greatest boast that she did not turn her head when the front doorbell rang. In a locked cupboard in that room was her collection of books banned by the censorship board, to which I was later to be gradually introduced. Also, the bottles of spirits and vermouth which might, in the housekeeping wisdom of the day, ‘have been a temptation’ to servants. In childhood I tried to construct the plan of house and hostel in my head, and the hardest part was the fact that the drawing room almost backed on to the room with the mysterious door – the door beyond the maid’s room and on a level a few steps lower than the drawing room. It was locked too, because it led to the hostel storeroom, and every Monday morning my mother let herself in with her key, unlocked a door on the other side and admitted the hostel cook and kitchen maid to give out stores and menus for the week. Her privacy, which she needed to write, was hemmed in by those locked and censored spaces.
In the convents too there was a private life going on behind a hall door. As schoolgirls we glimpsed it the odd time, sent to deliver a message to a nun, admitted to a front hall that had a thus-far-and-no-further message written on the walls, and the one hard chair. Then a nun, whisking out of a parlour where she had been seeing an official visitor, or coming from the chapel, would have let down her black skirt so it flowed, whereas in the school it was worn tucked up short over a shortish grey petticoat. What a change in them – their gliding walk, their fresh looks – just because they were in one room and not another. And what was being concealed, what revealed? Were they letting on that four hundred children and teenagers were just sordid business to be concealed like the petticoat? Or were they concealing from us another, a more intense, life? And what was it like during the school holidays? In our house as in the convent, time and presences changed places.
Upstairs there was the drawing room where my mother sat and wrote every day from eleven to one – her greatest boast that she did not turn her head when the front doorbell rang.
A different sort of presence obtained in the stunningly beautiful Honan Chapel at the end of our garden. A rickety iron gate in the fence was wreathed in convolvulus, a weed the gardener couldn’t control. Beyond that there was a vision in white local limestone, chastely carved to replicate the Romanesque twelfth-century Cormac’s chapel on the Rock of Cashel. As my father’s name was Cormac, this seemed most appropriate. While the college was not supposed to have any religious allegiance, the special pews for the president and the warden, and the special Masses on important days – though the chapel stood on the Honan land not the college’s – made it clear that was a dead letter. Attending Mass in the chapel on ordinary Sundays was a privilege: you had to have an academic connection. The gate into the college was generally open; another gate onto the street was generally locked. A couple of pious ladies who lived on the street nearest to the gate were allowed in as a special favour on Sunday mornings and the gate was unlocked for them. One of them was the sister of a deceased warden, I remember.
The interior of the chapel was a surprise, full of amazing colours, after the cool white exterior – in the windows by Harry Clarke and Henry Healy, in the liturgically coded vestments, the enamelled altar vessels, and what my sister and I loved best of all, the mosaic floor which illustrated ‘The song of the three children in the fiery furnace’: ‘Benedicite omnia opera domini domino’ (‘All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord’). So there was a mean-looking leopard sneaking up on a squirrel, there was a peacock and an eagle and a polar bear, lots of fish swimming in the river that flowed the length of the nave and a contorted sea serpent that I preferred not to look at. The windows, as we got older, received more attention. They were full of stories – St Gobnait setting her bees on the robbers (she is the patron saint of beekeepers) and the monks of St Nessan’s monastery pretending to be washerwomen chatting in Latin and Greek to frighten away the learned monks of a rival monastic school who had challenged them.
Our house, like the convent school, like the space around the chapel, was a place where sacred and secular met, and the encounter was visible, even in an Ireland where normal life and Catholic religion often seemed coterminous. In spite of the visiting bishop and the Catholic foundation, in spite of the warden’s special pew in the Honan Chapel, the secular was dominant. If there was no holy statue in the house, there was a mysterious document: the grant of arms to the hostel from the Ulster king of arms, framed in the study. The marvellous vestments of the chapel were kept in our attic, but the chapel meant to my mother, and she passed it on to us, the flowering of Irish art with the work of the Dun Emer Guild (Kitty McCormack of the guild came to stay), of Harry Clarke, Sarah Purser’s studio and Egan’s of Cork. My parents’ republican background meant, in the 1950s, a commitment to making the Republic work, to the legal, the political and the practical. My father laboured over the accounts for the (Protestant) auditor. My mother opened the mysterious door into the storeroom and checked the supplies of jam and tinned fruit; she lifted the telephone, and a string of vans and messenger boys delivered fresh food and sheets and towels, dispatched by the merchants and Magdalen laundries of the city.
Most of my parents' thirty years of marriage was spent in my father’s native city. For fourteen of those twenty-three years in Cork, we – my parents, my younger sister and I, presently joined by our younger brother – lived in that now vanished house.
In term time, they ate with the students while we had meals with Miss O’Neill. In summer, we all ate together. The barriers dissolved; we played around the hostel grounds and ranged through the adjacent college, which was almost as deserted. We slept in a tent in the garden; we picked raspberries and my mother made loads of jam; we lined up the apples in rows in the attic and she made apple jelly from the windfalls.
Until I was eleven or so, the house was my way of understanding the world, its differences and boundaries, and how they were not always there. And even then, but more certainly every year in the later decade that I lived there, I knew that we were submerged in history. The date 1884 over the front door of the house, the stamped name of the friary on the books, reminded us how things had changed, and my parents occasionally reminded us that we too would have to move on, out of a house that was not really ours. In 1963 they left for Rome, and a year later I moved to Oxford; my home left me before I could leave home, and I never lived in Cork after that. Even now, the clean bright corridors and the water dispensers and committee rooms of the new building are slightly shocking, because I know there is no longer a family of children to be kept out of sight, and there will never be again.
This essay was first published in The Vibrant House: Irish Writing and Domestic Space, edited by Rhona Richman Kenneally and Lucy McDiarmid, and published in 2017 by Four Courts Press. Thanks to Four Courts Press and the editors for their permission to include this essay in Poetry Ireland Review.