Tuesday 25 June 2019

Obituary: Leland Bardwell

Last member of Dublin's bohemian era who wrote five novels and poetry, and who lived life by her own rules

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: Author Leland Bardwell described her life as a crescendo of madness with blood, booze and song
BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY: Author Leland Bardwell described her life as a crescendo of madness with blood, booze and song

A Restless Life was the apt title for Leland Bardwell's memoir, a chronicle of countless affairs, sex, alcoholism, giving her first child up for adoption, six further children, an abortion, and an altogether chaotic life.

When Bardwell died near Ballinfull, Co Sligo, last Tuesday at the grand old age of 94 she was the last survivor of a bohemian era in Dublin and London, who lived life at full tilt, mostly to keep her demons at bay. Despite five novels, five collections of poetry and a musical based on the life of her heroine Edith Piaf, she never really achieved popular recognition unlike many of her literary friends and acquaintances.

Although a reviewer described one of her novels as a "mass of half-formed ideas and a morass of four-letter words", Bardwell was certainly an influential figure in the literary and artistic life of Dublin and London, although she was in her late 40s before she became embroiled in literary bohemian circles.

Born in 1926 in India, the youngest child to John and Mary Hone, the family returned to Ireland shortly afterwards where Leland, her older brother Noll and her beautiful, wayward sister Paloma grew-up in a semi-derelict Georgian house near Leixlip, Co Kildare.

Her social-climbing mother Mary, who was more interested in hunting with the 'Killing Kildares', adored her other daughter Paloma and told Leland that she was "a mistake" and ugly and called her "elephant head".

That said she was educated in Alexandra College, a private Protestant school in Dublin, where she excelled in sport. She did one term in college in Switzerland, paid for by a wealthy aunt, but her father, known as 'decadency' rather than 'ascendency', had fallen on hard times after his furniture factory in Kildare burned down and he couldn't afford to send her to Trinity College where she wished to study.

Bardwell would later claim that she left school at 16 to return home to care for her mother, who was dying from a fall from a horse and finally succumbed in May, 1941.

Meanwhile her sister Paloma, described as a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking glamour girl, emigrated to Rhodesia and died on her fourth honeymoon.

Leland Bardwell worked in a variety of jobs for various Anglo-Irish families, although she always insisted the family was of Dutch rather than English Protestant descent. She had a long-running affair with her cousin Christopher Cooper, 20 years her senior, but when she became pregnant by another man she left Dublin and went to London, where she gave the child, Sean, up for adoption.

She worked at a variety of jobs before moving to Scotland to an "alternative" community, where in 1948 she met and married Michael Bardwell, whose sister Hilary was married to the writer Kingsley Amis and was mother of the novelist Martin Amis.

Leland had twins with Michael, Billy and Anna, and moved from Scotland to a cottage in Kilkenny for a time. But she left him to run away to Paris with his brother Brian, a journalist. They had a daughter, Jacky, but after a time she returned to London and her husband Michael. That didn't stop her having a seven-year affair with the man who lived in the flat above them, while still continuing her affair with her cousin Christopher, which lasted until his death.

She eventually divorced and moved into a house with some of her children. In Soho she was introduced, through the Colony Club, to a young Anthony and Therese Cronin, the painters Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud and the poet Patrick Kavanagh, who was on one of his sojourns from Dublin.

On getting to know her, Kavanagh moved into her living room where he stayed on a camp bed until he was introduced to Leland's friend Katherine Moloney, whom he later married.

Leland described her life as "a crescendo of madness" and it didn't change when she moved with some of her children back to Dublin having fallen in love with a younger Scots/Irishman Fintan McLachlan.

The couple lived in a basement flat in Leeson Street and later Hatch Street for 10 years and had three children together, Nicholas, Edward and John. It was a time of "blood, booze and song", and according to Leland, the endless parties were "sexual - a bit wild and funny, maybe."

She later moved to a house in Kilnamanagh estate in Tallaght when the landlady sold up.

She was a well-known figure in The Bailey and McDaid's pub in Harry Street, where she described the legendary Paddy O'Brien who served behind the counter as "one of the outstanding barmen of his time", which indicated a familiarity with barmen - uncommon among Dublin mothers-of-six at the time.

Writing reviews for Hibernia magazine and buying the cheapest cuts of meat and vegetables at the stalls in Camden Street she became part of a coterie of artists, writers and painters, including Kavanagh, John Jordan, Paul Durcan, Macdara Woods, Michael Hartnett and many others. Moving between London and Dublin they fell out of the 1950s bohemian life embracing the Swinging '60s before that decade really arrived in Ireland.

From 1970 onwards she began to publish regularly and was a founder editor of the literary journal Cyphers (1975). She was also involved in the Irish Writers co-operative with Desmond Hogan, Neil Jordan and Steve McDonagh.

Her first book Girl on a Bicycle was published in 1977 and she wrote the musical No Regrets in 1984.

After the death of Patrick Kavanagh and, in 1981, his wife Katherine, Leland Bardwell along with the Monaghan barrister Paddy McEntee SC, solicitor John Jay and poet Paul Durcan, became Kavanagh's literary executors. That involved torturous litigation with the poet's brother Peter, over his grave in Iniskeen and his literary estate, which continued into the late 1990s.

All the while she was writing poetry, The Mad Cyclist, The Fly and the Bed Bug, The White Beach and novels based on her London life, That London Winter, The House, There We Have Been. She left Dublin to live in Annamakarraig in Co Monaghan and later Cloonagh in north-west Sligo. Her memoir A Restless Life was published by Liberties Press in 2009.

"She lived by her own rules," said a friend, and rarely has a truer word been spoken.

Sunday Independent

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