Thursday 8 December 2016

This Man's Life: Out of bondage on Tudor Road

Published 30/10/2016 | 02:30

'I hope the toddlers - and my Emilia chief among them - of St Kevin's community hall never lose the ability to enjoy themselves in their hopefully long and happy lives' Stock photo: Depositphotos
'I hope the toddlers - and my Emilia chief among them - of St Kevin's community hall never lose the ability to enjoy themselves in their hopefully long and happy lives' Stock photo: Depositphotos

The Egans, of Tudor Road in Ranelagh, were an odd lot. Or at least my ghastly granny was. When her daughter, my fabulous auntie Zena, was pregnant with Krystle at the age of 42, granny told her: "You're carrying your coffin." To which Zena replied in her best, posho West-Brit brogue (she had moved to Windsor, you see): "Don't be so f**king vulgar, mother dearest."

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A type of vulgarity was visited upon my father in 1958.

It was Christmas week.

He went to my granny's shop, The Leinster Chalet, on the main street in Rathmines, and asked her if could he have some items on the slate for Christmas presents. A Christmas cake for his wife, his new mother-in-law and his auntie Josie and some smaller items for his sibs: Joe, Martin, Cyril, Tom and the aforesaid sister Zena. His mother declined to give him, her eldest son, the credit. He didn't know why she said no; it could have been her slightly stuck-up spite about my mother Maureen, who was a singer and a dancer at the Theatre Royal and hailed from Westland Row.

Ironically, granny Egan appeared to always give credit to anyone who asked for it. This my dad knew because he used to have to devote his days off from the insurance company where he worked to collecting unpaid bills around Rathmines, Ranelagh and further afield.

Many years later in the spring of 2009, when my dad was in the hospice in Harold's Cross, he told me the story in detail. I taped the conversations.

"I can't say my mother didn't like your mother," he told me from his bed, months before he died. "She did."

"This was the 1950s in Ireland. Any girl that wore lipstick, got her nails done, wore nylons and smoked was looked down upon. Anyone who was in the theatrical business was a strange one, a quare one. That was the thinking upstairs in my mother's brainbox. But it was part of Maureen's business to always go out dressed up to the nines. My mother thought I was going out with a stage hussy. Maureen was, in fact, earning more than me as a much-in demand singer. She was singing before Eamonn Andrews at the Theatre Royal."

Ironically it was in the parlour of Tudor Road that Maureen did some of her best singing. Of an evening at the upright mahogany piano in the early 1960s, she'd belt out Hear My Song, Violetta and Home To Our Mountain Home with opera-trained auntie Dollie (and then the rest of the Egan family) joining in. Accompanying her on the piano was - quelle horreur - the ghastly granny herself. But Maureen shone at parties. And so Cecilia had now warmed to the stage hussy from Westland Row - and her singing.

On a wet Christmas Eve in 1990, however, there was no singing. Cecilia passed away. There was even less singing when it emerged not long after that Cecilia had left her big Georgian house in Ranelagh to her son in America. There was as much bad blood as good in the Egan family of Tudor Road after that.

Walking through Ranelagh now takes me back to my childhood. And my memories of bondage...

I remember that, as a baby, granny Egan tied the legs of my babygro together to stop me going too far in her drawing room. (How far could I possibly go anyway?) Or maybe it was the legs of my younger sister Marina's babygro? Whoever's poor legs were tied together, there was a chilling sense among us babies that it was best to keep your distance from ghastly granny Cecilia, who was bizarre by any stretch of the word.

The thought of my young whippersnapper Emilia being tied up in her babygro is just that: unthinkable. Every Monday morning, my saint-like (saint-like because she has to put up with me) mother-in-law Mary and I take Emilia down to St Kevin's community hall on Bloomfield Avenue in Portobello. This is ostensibly for Emilia to hang out with all of her baby mates.

And for me to wolf down chocolate biscuits.

For two hours, it is a sacred place of unbridled joy as 50 or so literally bright-young-things race about with smiles on their faces. Their legs are decidedly un-tied together by any lurking, ghastly grannies. The wonderful Helen Appleby, who has been involved in St Kevin's mother and toddler group for the last 10 years on a voluntary basis, is always loaded down with tea, coffee and the aforementioned chocolate biccies for the waiting parents/minders and sprinting toddlers. She expects no rewards or accolades. The service brings with it its own reward. She is what you might call a saint. After 15 minutes, I leave Helen's 50 angelic sunbursts of joie de vivre to walk through town to work. The journey is a depressing one. En route I compare the hassled, stressed-out grown-ups on Camden Street, George's Street and Dame Street, etc to the vibrant smilers in the church hall.

And I come to a realisation: most people lead lives of quiet desperation - on the cusp of madness.

And when I see these adults, with their hollowed-out faces full of unspecified terrors about the future, fears for the endurance of my own sanity are grave.

Alan Bennett wrote in Telling Tales: "I note at the age of 10 a fully developed ability not quite to enjoy myself, a capacity I have retained intact ever since."

I hope the toddlers - and my Emilia chief among them - of St Kevin's community hall never lose the ability to enjoy themselves in their hopefully long and happy lives.

*****

I am meeting Michael Colgan for lunch next week. Soon, sadly, he will be gone forever from The Gate, the theatre where he did a great job as artistic director for the past 30-something years. I think I love the man.

Man-love aside, I think I know Michael quite well. Yet I am a bit uncertain about this particular lunch. It is a bit like that old story of the problem of knowing what to say when visiting an actor friend in their dressing room after seeing a performance. Alan Bennett (him again, I know) concluded that the only safe thing to say is "marvellous!, marvellous!, marvellous!" So Colgan will be told that his three decades-long career at The Gate was marvellous!, marvellous!, marvellous!

I was thinking of getting him a book by Beckett or Wilde or even Philip Larkin as a present. But then I am reminded of the story of a woman who asked at the library for something on Larkin but seeing his photograph gave the book straight back. So, I have taken the safest option and asked Colgan in advance for his three all-time favourite novels. They are: The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch; The Old Wives' Tale by Arnold Bennett; and Tender is the Night by F Scott Fitzgerald.

Michael can expect one at our lunch.

Sunday Independent

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