Tuesday 16 October 2018

Splendid isolation of my new life in the Big House

It's magnificent to be a guest of the OPW at Farmleigh, says writer Dermot Bolger but the work still has to get done

Dermot Bolger

When the elderly Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli found himself, to his astonishment, elected as Pope John XXIII in 1958, among the first questions he was asked by journalists was whether he knew exactly how many people worked in the Vatican. "Yes," was his alleged reply, "around half of them."

If asked the same question about Farmleigh House in Dublin's Phoenix Park, I would need to double the Pontiff's estimate, because I have never been in any place so smoothly run, with efficiency and an abundance of friendliness, by a dedicated staff.

I don't know if the rejuvenated Farmleigh is the jewel in the crown of the Office of Public Works, but it is hard to imagine any jewel that glistens more, even in the heavy rain that I type this in, in the gate lodge beside Farmleigh's famous clock tower that is my residence for the next three months.

It is not a life of total seclusion: any decent paparazzi with a zoom lens at the Knockmaroon Hill gate can easily get pictures of me eating my corn flakes in my underpants -- and, when Seventies-style underpants become chic again in some retrospective craze, the shots might even prove valuable.

However, the gates only close for three days a week. The OPW open Farmleigh to the public from Thursday to Sunday.

Last Bank Holiday Monday 11,000 people wandered in for The Farmleigh Affair -- an eclectic mix of world-class live music, with oohs of pleasure at the voice of Iarla O Lionaird of Invisible Fields who transposes sean nos singing into a dramatic electronic domain.

These may be replaced by gasps of terror this weekend (though I suspect the odd ooh of pleasure may live on) when Farmleigh is transformed into a vast drive-in movie theatre, screening movies such as The Shining.

This is one screening I'll avoid. You can all drive safely home after watching this film about a man who goes deranged with an axe when left alone in a remote empty hotel, but I'll be the one left alone on a remote empty estate, waiting for a knock on the door and the immortal words, "Here's Johnny."

But being alone is part of a writer's life and, no matter how incredibly hospitable the staff are in Farmleigh, after a while any room becomes just another workspace -- be it my cottage or the more secluded room I use when the public are in.

That daily struggle in a room somewhere is about having your voice heard.

And while my own voice will be heard in Farmleigh this afternoon -- when I give my inaugural reading -- I am anxious that other voices be heard here as well.

On August 27, it will be the dead poet, Francis Ledwidge, in a free performance of my play about his life, Walking The Road. On September 24 I will be introducing more than a dozen new voices from Tallaght, Clondalkin, Rathfarnham and other parts of south Co Dublin reading their poetry in the ballroom. And on September 28 I introduce a selection of vibrant young voices from Ballymun who are exploring their world through rap, song and the spoken word.

It will be lovely to hear these voices echoing in rooms and grounds that were once closed off to the public.

The highlight of my stay so far, however, has been bringing my father -- who, at 90 years old, still manages to lead an independent, engaged life in his own house in Finglas -- for afternoon tea in Farmleigh's magnificent library.

His legs are weak now, but he is a true survivor. German bombers could not stop him during the war -- when he sailed among those Irish crews on tiny ships regularly attacked when bringing back vital national supplies to Ireland on dangerous runs to Lisbon.

Storms and shipwrecks afterwards didn't stop him. Nor did the unknown fool of a driver in sunglasses in a big black car going too fast through Dalkey on the afternoon of the World Cup Final two years ago, who didn't even wait to discover that the elderly man forced to jump out his way had broken his hip.

My father survived the resultant operation and then a second, more major all-night operation a few days later, when nobody gave him a chance and only an extremely dedicated surgeon, Mr Richards, pulled him through.

He survived three months in intensive care and rehabilitation, determined to walk again. And so nothing was going to stop him from climbing the front steps into Farmleigh, with the help of his son, daughter and grandson.

As we helped him into a wheelchair for a private tour of the former home of the Guinness family, we told him that he deserved it, seeing as he had been a dedicated sponsor of their lifestyle for more than seven decades, as the oldest surviving Guinness drinker in Martin's pub in Finglas.

And he had sponsored me in my youth when I tried to write full time -- despite his misgivings as to whether I could survive on just words.

But, as a child you experiment with words and those words open up imaginary words, which also open up journeys -- real and imaginary -- into unexpected places.

My first childhood poems led to other poems that led to novels and plays. And yet I have never lost the sense of wonder every time I sit at the desk, unsure about what -- if anything -- will happen next. For these next few months my imaginative space is well defined -- so well defined that if I step outside it at night security alarms go off -- but one doesn't need a cottage under a clock tower to write, or an isolated attic room such as the one All Hallows College has generously provided for me over the years.

You need to create your own cottage, even if it is simply a bedroom with a locked door that children and partners are not allowed to knock on during the 45 minutes every evening that you insist belongs to you alone.

Pat McCabe wrote The Butcher Boy by each morning arriving an hour early to the London classroom where he taught special-needs children. Any space will do and, if you use your bedroom, the good news is that you won't have to walk as far as I do for a loaf of brown bread and a bottle of wine.

However, I am aware that for the short few months I am blessed with a special space. I do go home each evening, but when my family settles down at night I drive back through Phoenix Park, where herds of deer silently graze beside the deserted road.

Inside the grounds I take a final moonlit walk amid the old trees in a silence both vast and humbling.

Then I walk towards the clock tower with the same sense of anticipation that I felt as a boy just starting to write, and with the same question in my mind as I settle myself at my desk in the cottage: what happens next?

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