Monday 19 November 2018

Perfectly Frank

Brighid McLaughlin

THERE is a sad sluggish stillness to the sea as I make my way down Coliemore Road to Green Road, Dalkey, the home of Harriet O'Donovan-Sheehy, widow of Frank O'Connor, one of Ireland's greatest short story writers.

I had never met Harriet before but after reading a biography of O'Connor's life, I am astounded with what she had to put up with in the name of literature. O'Connor once said: "I'm three words starting with the letter 'A' that no Irishman admits to: I'm anonymous - my name is Michael O'Donovan not Frank O'Connor, I'm an agnostic, and I'm an adulterer."

O'Connor was all those things and more. Not only were there several women in his life, but their paths all crossed again and again in the oddest of arrangements. In the Fifties his opposition to the church, his two marriages in a registry office and unusual familial relationships marked him out as a figure of some controversy. O'Connor certainly played the field. And naturally, the sad fecks of gossips had a field day.

There was Mary Manning, AE Russell's secretary; the actresses Irene Haugh, Merial Moore and Ruth Draper; the singer Anne Crowley, from Bantry, Co Cork; Nancy McCarthy, a chemist from Cork; Ethel Montgomery, a married woman twice his age; Evelyn Bowen, a wild Welsh actress who was married to the English actor Robert Speaight when she fell in love with O'Connor; Joan Knape and, finally, Harriet Rich.

"Michael compartmentalised the women and the problems in his life," says Harriet, as we talk about the strange emotional life of her late husband. "When things got tough, Michael would go into the study and write, that was his way of saving the creative imagination and protecting it from reality."

I look at the lady in front of me; she is American. With precision and click, she moves his books and her journals towards me. There is no messing about. Wearing a white shirt and brown cut-off knitted waistcoat, O'Donovan-Sheehy is an elegant-looking, grey-haired lady. Confiding with literary history she has emerged as the protector of his life. I wonder will she be as frank as Frank was.

I look around. There are jugs of sweet pea and nasturtium flowers dotted throughout the house. The back door is wide open, framing a spectacular expanse of sea. The scent of the garden is heavy, and a red blaze of montbresia snatch the salty breath of the Atlantic ocean. It is very pretty. There are books everywhere, copies of the New Yorker which O'Connor submitted stories to for 20 years. Over the fireplace, the words, "Bidden or not bidden, God is present." Harriet sees me looking at it.

"I'm Episcopalian," she says with a jovial smile. So how did she meet this complicated man?

"My first sight of Michael was in Harvard in 1951. He was 48 when I met him. I was taking a course in human relationships," she says, laughing at the irony of it all. "It was summer and he wore a rumpled seersucker suit. Somehow he must have thought it was like tweed so it got pretty damn sad as time went on. I had to get him to send it to the cleaners. He also wore a thick, fuzzy, blue and orange tweed tie, and a look both frightened and delighted - as though he didn't know what a simple Irishman, as he often called himself, was doing at Harvard."

"The first time he noticed me as a person I was sitting beside a boy and we had just been reading Deirdre of the Sorrows. 'She's an awful bitch,' I said. Michael looked at me in astonishment and asked me out for a coffee. He was natural, relaxed, always in the background, never in the thick of things, never obviously present. He was basically quite shy. At the time I had a boyfriend who had been a WWII bomber pilot and he felt guilty about being a bomber and the people he might have killed. He was much too serious for me. The relationship with Michael was slow enough at the start. I picked him up and drove him to a party. After it was over he said, 'Don't offer anyone a lift. We'll go and get a bite to eat together.' I felt suitably impressed.

"We went to Hazens, a student place with rough wooden tables. He told me that he was teaching Ken Kesey, the author of One flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. At one point he said, 'What are you doing with your life?' I told him about Alan, the pilot whom I was thinking of marrying. He said, 'If you're thinking that hard about it, don't do it.' 'Anyhow,' Michael said, 'What's the drawback?' 'He's a Catholic.' 'Oh, will I ever get away from Catholicism,' he cried."

At this stage in his life, O'Connor's domestic arrangements were in a considerable mess. He told Harriet that he was in the process of getting a divorce from his first wife Evelyn Bowen, whom he married in February 1939. They had lived in Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow. O'Connor told her that he had a daughter Liadain with Evelyn, and a son called Myles. He told her that he had another son called Oliver with his girlfriend Joan Knape. He told her that after he had the affair with Joan, Evelyn magnanimously invited Joan to stay and live with them in same house. Most women would have bolted right then. Harriet Rich, as she was then known, stayed.

"I listened as he talked about these complicated relationships," says Harriet. "And I listened to him for 15 years." Her greeny-blue eyes widen into the world again. If O'Connor thought that Harriet's presence would sort out his unresolved emotional life, he was wrong. Like all the women before her, with the notable exception of Nancy McCarthy, Harriet was smitten and charged headlong into O'Connor's chaotic life.

"I never found the artistic ego difficult," she says. "There were moments when I thought it could have helped if Michael could drive or cook, but then we only had one child. When I had measles and I was pregnant with our daughter Haillie Og, I once asked him to go out to the kitchen and open a can of something because I was hungry. First lunch came in a soup bowl, then a sugar bowl and finally a flower vase. He was divinely abstracted . . . "

Were you jealous of the other women in his life? "I was afraid of Joan more than Evelyn. Michael met Joan in England in 1944. They fell in love instantly. Evelyn was in Ireland with Liadain who was four and Myles who was six, waiting for Michael to return. But Michael stayed on. Then he discovered that Joan was pregnant. Typical of Michael, he wrote to Evelyn and told her what had happened. Joan gave birth in London to a baby Oliver. He took a trip to England to see her and came back to Dublin. They wrote to each other regularly but Joan could not cope with looking after the baby alone and told him that she was ill. Evelyn kindly invited her to stay with them in Dublin until she recovered. Joan came over. There was a lot of tension, particularly because Michael's mother Minnie was coming to stay with them from Cork."

In Frank O'Connor; A life biographer Jim McKeon describes the scene:

"When Joan eventually turned up at the door, Minnie took the baby in her arms, glanced at her son and smiled. That wise 80-year-old knew straightaway who the father was. So, not counting his mother, Michael lived happily at 57 Strand Road, Dublin, with the two women in his life and Minnie spoiled Oliver with daily doses of love and attention. At times, though, the situation bordered on French farce and Michael wisely stayed out of the way upstairs in his room. During Joan's visit he enjoyed his role as king of the castle with three adoring women attending to his every need."

"Yes," says Harriet, "I was jealous of Joan for two reasons: firstly, Joan wrote short stories and good poetry. I always felt that he had a closer relationship with Joan, I felt that she was more of a formidable opponent. I was more scared and insecure with her around.

"I met Evelyn for the first time in Idle Wild Airport, which is now called JFK, in New York. She was going to Canada with Liadain, their daughter. When Michael saw Evelyn coming off the plane he said, 'Good God, her hair has turned red with grief.' Evelyn was very much a grand lady with hauteur. She also had a wild Welsh side to her. I felt very insecure meeting her."

When Michael proposed to Harriet she accepted at once. But it was not to be an auspicious beginning; after lugging her trunk of clothes and 'nylon nightgowns' from America on the Queen Elizabeth to South Hampton, O'Connor drove Harriet to a tiny village called Nash in Buckinghamshire, near Bletchley.

"It was a real Elizabethan house with no heating, none, and it was the coldest winter ever," says Harriet.

"Michael and I were married in December 1953 in England. Bill Naughton and my stepson Myles were the only people at our wedding. Bill was a lorry driver who wrote to Michael and said, 'When I'm bored I sit and write stories are they any good?' Michael said, 'Yes, they are', and Bill wrote the play Alfie after that."

On the their wedding day, instead of a celebratory lunch in a hotel as Bill Naughton suggested, O'Connor insisted on shopping for some bacon and cabbage and cooking it at home. "He wasn't a bit romantic," says Harriet, "but I was deeply in love with him."

Two days after this low-key wedding, Michael had to appear in a London court in an attempt to gain custody of his stepson Myles.

"Michael and I really wanted to have custody of Myles. I adored Myles from the very minute we met," says Harriet. O'Connor had no success so he brought Harriet to see Evelyn in Dublin in an attempt to persuade her to give him Myles. "The last time I saw Evelyn was in Ranelagh on that begging mission," says Harriet, a shadow of immense weariness stealing over her. "That spring we wanted to take Myles with us to America but we were not allowed without her permission and she wouldn't give us it. We lied to the court and said we'd bring Myles back in the fall. We hadn't the slightest intention of doing so. Evelyn got a warrant for his arrest for contempt of court. I remember the day, the only time I ever sat in her house in Ranelagh, she looked at me and said, 'If you were my husband I'd insist you'd purge your contempt.' I said, 'Come on Evelyn, be reasonable.' She stood up and said, 'You have insulted the lady of the house, please leave.' As we left, Michael turned to me and said, 'Well, now you've been well and truly insulted' . . . Joan was different. Although I was certainly insecure with Joan too, I felt you could get friendly with her. I could always see that Joan had a big vulnerable heart. Evelyn did not."

Finally, I pluck up immense courage and ask Harriet about Nancy McCarthy, O'Connor's childhood sweetheart. According to O'Connor's biographer Jim McKeon, "Michael was hopelessly in love with Nancy McCarthy . . . He proposed to her over a hundred times, but although she loved him, she just would not marry him. She was to flit in and out of his life until the day he died."

I was afraid to venture towards this territory. But when I mentioned Nancy, Harriet perked up brightly at the sound of Nancy's name.

"Yes, I think Nancy was the big love of his life. Nancy was gorgeous," says Harriet. "She was a real role-model for me. Her mother had post-partum psychosis after every birth and people told Nancy that her mother was crazy. She grew up thinking there was insanity in the family and there wasn't. She was so scared of it. Michael used to say that Nancy would rush up a prescription in her pharmacy in Cork, then rush to the church and pray that it was all right."

By 1934, O'Connor's long-distance relationship with Nancy was floundering. When Nancy broke off her engagement to O'Connor, he never quite recovered and he suffered a nervous breakdown.

So why did nothing ever happen between Nancy and Michael? "I think it was because of her religious views," says Harriet. "Nancy was very religious and I don't think she could face the notion of being with someone who wasn't a practising Roman Catholic. Someone once said to Nancy in Cork: 'I know you were the love of his life', she replied saying, 'No, Harriet was - but he was very fond of me'."

It is plain to see that Harriet loved Nancy as much as Michael did. As the afternoon wears on, I realise that Harriet O'Donovan-Sheehy is quite an extraordinary lady. There is no malice, no animosity, nothing but goodwill, good humour and kindness.

A gust of wind surrounds the house, and tosses leaves inside, as Harriet tells me about her first meeting with Nancy, her dark eyes flashing good-humouredly at the memory.

"Michael and I were staying in the Imperial hotel in Cork when a waiter came over to us and said, 'Excuse me sir, there's a lady on the telephone who would like to speak with you. She's a Miss McCarthy.' 'Good Lord,' said Michael, 'My long-lost love.' He turned to me and smiled, 'Would you like to meet her?' I was nervous but I said I would so we took the bus to Douglas and walked up to Nancy's house. The minute I met her, I liked her," says Harriet. "Nancy came to stay with us in Dublin and we visited Nancy in Cork. We gave her a poodle which she adored. She was the first person I called when he died," says Harriet.

By 1966, O'Connor's health deteriorated. He was taking morphine and was constantly in pain. "On Thursday, March 10, 1966, Michael was feeling weak and went to lie down on his bed. A few minutes later I went in to see how he was, I lay on the bed with him and held his hand, he smiled and quipped, 'I hope you don't expect me to entertain you.' His breathing became difficult and he died in my arms. I was heartbroken," says Harriet, with tears in her eyes. "I called Fr Maurice Sheehy, our friend who came and gave Michael the last rites. Nancy came down for Cork. She was my rock," says Harriet.

When Fr Maurice Sheehy left the priesthood, several years after O'Connor's death, Harriet married him. Sadly, Maurice too died. Just as Harriet is about to speak of Maurice, the doorbell rings. Yellow fresias arrive for her birthday. It is time to go.

As I amble back I watch the mist rise like incense from the water. I think of Harriet. She selflessly rearranged her whole life to accommodate living with Frank O'Connor, an affectionate but demanding writer who had a steady line of women. Few women could have coped. Harriet did - why? Because she loved him. She pledged herself to him that day in Bletchley and remained loyal to him to the end. And yes, sorrow dogged her footsteps, but love did too and like the mist, she rose refreshed. I hope we can all be that strong.

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