Monday 19 August 2019

Mary Kenny: 'I saw some ghastly dumps while searching for new home'

The clutter that goes with moving home is a metaphor of life - and death

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

All of life's experiences come to an end, eventually, and I knew that one day I'd be booted out of the adorable, if somewhat ramshackle, Georgian flat that I have rented in Dublin's Kildare Street since 1996. The rent hadn't increased for 20 years - it had remained just under €800 monthly - although, on the other hand, there were structural faults with the apartment which mightn't have passed muster with Health and Safety: doors didn't close properly, there was an actual hole in the bathroom floor, the radiators hadn't worked for ages, and maintenance and repairs seemed scanty.

Yet I was only there for about a week each month, and I love slightly rackety artists' garrets, last relics of the Vie de Bohème of the old literary Dublin so well described by John Ryan in Remembering Where We Stood.

Visitors who came to the Kildare Street flat would survey the higgledy-piggledy scene of books, papers, photographs, mementoes and knick-knacks and exclaim, "It's so YOU, Mary!"

But a new gleaming Dublin won't feature many old Georgian garrets and writers' dens: and when I got the phone call, at the end of last year, that my tenure would be up by autumn of 2017, it was a not unexpected blow. The building would be redeveloped and made into something altogether posher. All those City of London bankers shifting to Dublin, post-Brexit, will need office space.

That's the way of the world. You can't cling to the past. You have to move on. But the metaphorical battering-ram at the door does make you realise why people have an obsession about owning their own property: ownership is the only security.

Over the course of my lifetime, I must have lived in more than a score of different dwellings, yet Kildare Street was the location which I felt was my true home. During the long spell of my late husband's illness and disability, there would be respite in this cosy little Dublin nest. That's what it was: a nest.

And yet, self-pity would surely be inappropriate, considering the daily reports about homeless families, living in cars or in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. I was losing a working, and comforting, second perch, not the only roof over my head.

But then comes the task that so many older people dread: clearing out a lifetime's accumulated clutter. You don't realise how much STUFF you have until you have to start sorting it - or getting rid of it. Could someone please remind me that I don't need any more clothes? Ever. Again. I'm actually quite badly dressed, and yet I seem to have more apparel than Victoria Beckham. Then - all the family photographs, letters, cards, mementos.

What do I do with all this? There are hundreds of letters from my brothers, my sister, my mother. Each one seems to me a treasured archive from the past, so vividly evoking, alas, the times that are gone, the darling ones now departed this world.

Over the past year, I had to dismantle it all. The 18th century dwelling was full of nooks and crannies - including a secret opening behind a wall - and every corner was filled to the gunnels. I sat, often alone, going through so much - friends and family very kindly helped with lugging, hefting and schlepping, but, like facing death, you have to address the basic decisions on your own. And it is such a symbol of death, too: one day you'll have to leave behind everything you treasured in this world, so why not do it now?

But how could I chuck away my mother's prayer book, so well-used over her lifetime, or my brother Carlos's miniature wooden horse, which my father had brought from South America? How could I leave behind a picture my late nephew had hung on the wall, remembering the very day that he so sweetly did it? So many sad memories as well as blithe ones.

Some days I just sat there, in the middle of a shambles, despairing that I'd ever get through the clear-out. Deadlines force their own discipline, and an element of ruthlessness must set in after a while. Even some stuff you like must go - because you have to accept and LET go. Yet every object has to be assessed for its meaning and value - I loathe the Marie Kondo approach, which amounts to "bin everything". Where would history, culture, research, and the accretion of memory be without artefacts of what we treasure from the past?

The last six weeks were an ordeal: there was an unrepaired electrical fault in the building (caused, apparently, by flooding) so there was no light, no heat and no lift. The tenants couldn't live there any more, and access was, literally, a pain in the backside, as I climbed up and down, up and down, up and down, two-and-a-half flights of stone steps. I thought I'd expire from heart palpitations, if not arthritis of the lower vertebral column.

Some things get left behind. So be it. Wasn't I lucky to have them for so long?

In searching for another perch, I saw some ghastly dumps, which gave me an insight into the rental market in Dublin, and it was sheer luck (or maybe the deposit of my mother's prayers) that kind friends knew of a small one-room flat near Belfield, to which I have now gratefully decamped. And I've sworn a minimalist oath to myself: no more clutter! Every hat, bag, book and ornament has to justify itself. Absolutely!


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