Sunday 21 October 2018

New Tone in the art of fatherhood

After his parents separated, Eamon Delaney needed many years to heal the rift with his father, Eddie, creator of the Wolfe Tone statue on St Stephen's Green. He tells Ciara Dwyer about how a forgotten scrapbook drew the author back into his magical childhood, and how he was finally bowled over by romance

Ciara Dwyer

FOR many years, Dublin-born author Eamon Delaney was overwhelmed by his father, the sculptor Eddie Delaney. Everywhere he went he came across his work. (Most people are familiar with his Wolfe Tone statue opposite the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and the Thomas Davis fountain on College Green.)

"If I was reeling home from nightclubs or going into town, I couldn't go through the city without passing his sculptures," he tells me. "They punctuated the landscape and became a source of oedipal frustration for me."

After his parents separated, when Eamon was 17, his relationship with his father went into a decline. During those years, his contact with him was sporadic, if it happened at all. (Eddie had moved to their holiday home in Carraroe and later settled with Anne Gillen, with whom he had two children. He already had five children with Nancy, Eamon's mother.) But the discord was not to last. These days he has a different story to tell.

When Eddie died in September at the age of 79, with Eamon and some of his siblings by his side, the relationship was a happier one, in which father and son had made peace years previously. No longer did he flinch from his father's figures. Instead, he looked at them with renewed admiration.

When Eddie got Alzheimer's disease and moved into a nursing home in Carraroe, Eamon came across a scrapbook in his father's house. It was full of newspaper articles and interviews following the curve of his creativity down through the years. It was then that Eamon, a journalist and novelist, decided to write a book using this material. Breaking the Mould is the result. Although it contains many charming stories of growing up in their Dun Laoghaire home at Stone View Place, with its makeshift foundry at the back and watching the giant Wolfe Tone statue being taken away in a box, the book covers a vast arena. It deals with the Ireland of that time, and puts the events into a social and historical context.

"I wanted to write about my family background, growing up in the milieu of sculpture and how unusual this world was in the Sixties and Seventies with pipers and poets calling by," he says. "It was a magical time and an extraordinary childhood."

Eamon was the eldest of five. When he and his siblings would go to sleep at night they would hear the humming of the ovens and the screech of shovelled coal from the foundry. (His father had built one, without planning permission.) His parents had hippie values but also believed in Victorian self-improvement. While the adults would be in the kitchen eating Carr's crackers with Brie cheese and having passionate discussions about art, Eamon and the rest of the children were told to do their homework.

They had heard their father saying that inspiration didn't automatically come to him between nine and five. Sometimes when Eddie would be telling the kids to do their homework, they would infuriate him by replying gleefully with their version of his line -- inspiration didn't come to them between six and nine.

They weren't allowed to eat chewing gum or boiled sweets, and television was rationed. Eamon credits his mother Nancy for bringing her love of literature into the home. She was always reading American novelists such as Saul Bellow. "My mum was a serious intellect, she still is," he says.

Bits of their father's workshop spilled into the house. "There would be pieces of Perspex and acrylic framers in our bedroom. Our home looked like a Sixties gallery. There were rough spotlights and bits of sculpture and masks on the walls," he tells me.

He describes it in detail in the book. "In our childhood we were surrounded by statues and masks: strange, headless figures and skeletal animals. In the darkness, our surroundings looked like Picasso's Guernica with jagged silhouettes and upheld arms. For years, we slept with the death mask of Austin Clarke, the poet, hanging over our bed."

But for all that, it was a disciplined home. While Eddie would work long hours making his sculptures, Nancy made sure that the children were up in the mornings and ready for school. Eamon tells me that she was a fantastic mother and a great cook. It was no wonder that the children had sophisticated tastes from an early age, turning up their noses at processed cheese and marrowfat peas in their friends' homes and asking for chicken tarragon instead. At home, Nancy would make them delicious Indian and Italian meals.

"Sometimes Garech Browne would be calling with his merry group of pranksters and my parents would say, 'We've got children to raise and there's art to be made'. They still had a good time at art exhibitions but they were very disciplined. We were taught to appreciate art and life and shown how closely they were intertwined."

Eddie taught them how to draw. In school, they were told to put the sky at the top of the page but the sculptor showed his children that the sky was all around. It was about movement. The sun was round, as opposed to a circle with spikes.

"He'd give you a bit of charcoal and you'd keep sketching. Do it once, then do it again. Those lessons were very important, and they go for life and sex and everything in life. You have to lose your inhibitions and not worry about getting things right or wrong."

On Saturday mornings, Eddie would take his two eldest sons into town for an adventure. He would park on Stephen's Green.

"Sometimes if he couldn't find a space, he would park on the path, right in front of Wolfe Tone. He was keeping an eye on it. There was always a bit of wideboy stuff with him." Eamon laughs at his father's brazen ways. Charles Haughey told him that his father was "some man" and the poet John Montague described Eddie as a "force of nature".

Then they would head into the Hendriks Gallery.

"There were always deals. My father wouldn't close a deal immediately. It was kind of like selling a horse, going back and forth. He'd be talking up something, collecting money. Then we'd go around to the Dawson gallery and Davy Byrnes. His sculpture is on the back bar there."

After that they would head into Nearys for orange and sandwiches and there they'd come across The Dubliners. On to Capel Street they would go to see Gerald Davis in his gallery. Some mornings, his father would bring them to the fruit market, where he'd buy potatoes and oranges in bulk. He used to say, "I'm in the trade". Later they would turn the wooden orange crates into lobster pots.

"It felt fantastic in the back of the car. You'd come home with new toys and new art materials. That's why I love Capel Street to this day. It hasn't changed."

When I meet Eamon he tells me that he had been in the General Register Office on Lombard Street the day before, getting his father's death certificate. The last time he had been there was to register the birth of his son, Ciaran, who is now a year old. He never thought that his father would live long enough to see him married with a child. Eamon was 46 when his son was born. He hadn't exactly rushed into things but then he had tried many lives for size before going down the conventional route of marriage and parenthood.

When his parents separated, he dyed his hair green and became a punk. He drank flagons of cider in the Dandelion market and played bass guitar there with his band Complete Chaos. Many's the time he put his poor mother through hell when he was brought home by the guards.

"It was a rebellion against my arty liberal progressive upbringing. It was complete nihilism. I hung out with working-class lads from Dun Laoghaire and Ballybough and I stopped reading books."

He turned his back on art too. He drifted for a few years and backpacked through Europe, ending up in a kibbutz in Israel for six months. It was an enjoyable time, doing physical work in the sun and coming in contact with Swedish girls.

Having got all the partying out of his system, Eamon rebelled against his bacchanalian self by signing up for arts in UCD. He studied English and History, revelling in the student politics and debates. On graduating, he went on the dole and got a bedsit in Harcourt Street. It was the Eighties. During that time he spent his nights living it up in the Pink Elephant while his days were taken up trying to write novels and hanging out in Bewleys and The Coffee Inn. But he had a plan.

He applied for a job as a diplomat in the Department of Foreign Affairs and got it. The idea was to do this for one year, while working on his novel. Instead he stayed for seven. He started in New York, reporting to work every morning in the United Nations building. In the evenings, he would head out on the town and live it up, as any red blooded man in his 20s would have done. All the while he enjoyed the perks of his allowances, which included a loft apartment. He has written about this period in his book, An Accidental Diplomat.

When he moved back to Ireland, Eamon continued working in the Department, dealing with the peace process in the North. (It was a lively time with Albert Reynolds and later John Bruton as taoisigh.) Eventually, political stimulation and the security of a steady wage no longer satisfied him. He packed it in and became a journalist. Since then he has worked as editor of Magill and writes book reviews, where his own opinions frequently provoke debate. Recently, when examining David McWilliams's book on the current economic catastrophe, Eamon interjected with his own view that nobody forced people to take out colossal loans. "Whatever happened to personal responsibility?" he asked.

Over the years, Eamon wandered from one romance to the next, until one day he walked into a cafe on Thomas Street and met the love of his life, and now wife, Fiona. "This girl was serving coffee. She was amazing -- carnal, voluptuous with big shoulders and chestnut hair. She had lilac bra straps and an off-the-shoulder top. Think Nigella. The air crackled as I talked to her."

Eamon told her that he edited Magill and suggested that he would leave some of his magazines for the customers to read. "She said: 'People shoplift magazines but they never seem to shoplift yours.' I thought, 'cheeky', but I was intrigued by her roguishness."

He told her that he also wrote screenplays and asked if she would like to read one of his. "Half an hour later I was back getting another coffee with my screenplay in hand. I was being quite forward, like an Italian man. I think women respect that."

Fiona, he tells me, is a woman of many talents. She works as a community arts officer, she plays the drums in a band, teaches samba drumming to kids and also does landscape gardening. And she has lived in Brazil, Italy and Spain. She asked him if he wanted to see her band play. A week before the gig, they went to a party.

"We sat in the same chair and she put her arm around me. It wasn't even me doing the moves. And that was it. Having wandered a bit, I knew I wanted to move very quickly. There was no awkwardness. I thought this is so right."

They married in August 2007 and their son Ciaran was born the following year.

"Never for a moment am I bored or not attracted. It takes on new levels, new nurturing. Fatherhood doesn't change you completely but it does make you think of mortality. I wanted to write Breaking the Mould before my son was born and before my father died."

Eddie lived to hear of his grandson's birth. "My father had considerable Alzheimer's but what penetrated the fog was Fiona. I brought her to meet him. She said: 'Eddie, I'm going to marry your son. Isn't he a great fella?' He said: 'Jaysus, I tell ya ... You're welcome to him.'"

The three of them enjoyed the jovial banter.

When Eddie died, people told Eamon that he was the spit of his father, physically, and that he possessed the same energy. He found this both eerie and consoling.

Sometime after the funeral Eamon passed a fishing shop and started to cry.

"I used to go fishing with my father on the way to Connemara. I thought of fish hooks and how we made our own weights from lead. We had a lead mask at home and we used to chip bits off it for the weight. That masculine thing is important."

He tells me that he has started drawing again and he will put a pencil in his son's hand, as soon as he is old enough. Finally, he has rediscovered his love of art and pride in his father's talent. Eddie used to tell him that "the sculpture outliveth the man" and now he is delighted that his late father's pieces have soared in value. It is an honour but also recognition of his father's remarkable life; for he was a simple man from Claremorris, possessed of sheer determination to make art.

Then Eamon shows me a photo of Fiona, with baby Ciaran in her arms. His tiny fingers are reaching out to touch one of Eddie's statues.

Breaking the Mould: A Story of Art and Ireland by Eamon Delaney is published by New Island, €16.99

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