Saturday 24 March 2018

Edna's abandoned childhood home under the hammer

Former house of the controversial writer is up for sale, but needs a lot of work

Edna O’Brien
Edna O’Brien
Edna as a young lady in 1953
The exterior of Drewsborough House.
The kitchen in Drewsborough House
One of the bedrooms in Drewsborough House
The living room where ivy can be seen through the windows.
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

THE ivy has penetrated into its sitting room and entwined the frames of the bay windows, the cupboards hang open, and empty old 1950s chairs sit facing one another in abandoned conversation in a kitchen where the kettle hasn't been boiled in seven years.

This is Drewsborough House today, the childhood home of Edna O'Brien who famously ran away from the house, her family, Tuamgraney and then Ireland to become the country's most famous and controversial author, and some still argue today, one of its best.

Now Drewsborough is to be sold at auction at the Old Ground Hotel in Ennis on July 1 next with a guide price of €350,000 set by Tipperary Town-based auctioneer Noel Corcoran, who has been charged with the sale. The disposal will probably take the property out of the hands of the O'Brien family after a hundred and five years. Noel is endearingly protective of his abandoned charge: "That ivy has since been cut back and cleared, it worked its way in slowly, but it did no damage."

The house is being sold on behalf of the estate of Edna's late sister-in-law Claire O'Brien and the widow of her brother, who lived here as the local doctor and ran his practice from within its walls. The proceeds will go to the family.

Like its former resident, this house also has a few intriguing yarns to tell: it was the subject of a €1m offer by a developer at the height of the property boom in 2007 which the family did not accept and after which the property market went into freefall, taking sites in towns like Tuamgraney down to a fraction of their boom time value, diminishing them by 70pc.

Had the family accepted the money then, Drewsborough might today be a ghost estate instead of the ghost of a once spurned author's childhood.

In the same year it became the focus of a commemoration ceremony and the unveiling of a plaque hailing the achievements of its most famous resident. Drewsborough House has been empty for seven years since.

The decor and furnishing is very 1950s and includes a traditionally laid out kitchen which presumably would have been the social engine of the home. O'Brien, who is known to return regularly to visit her hometown where she is now held in high regard, would probably find it much unchanged from her years growing up here.

And while it's taken a weather beating and unfettered ageing has tarnished its condition a good deal, Drewsborough remains a strikingly elegant and upright abode with the sort of features likely to draw a crowd. Built in the 19th century by the Drew family of landlords which dominated the area, the house was acquired by Edna's father John O'Brien in 1899. Edna is reported to have been born here somewhere between 1930 and 1932. However, the author has always been notoriously secretive about her age.

It spans close to 5,000 sq ft – far more expansive and with more depth than its exterior suggests. It has five bedrooms, a kitchen, dining room, sitting room and lounge – all with big open hearths. There's a curved bay with big windows looking out. The house will require a complete restoration inside.

Best known for her "Country Girls" trilogy, the first of which was published in 1960, O'Brien's story told of two Irish girls who run away from a country town just like Tuamgraney, first to Dublin and then to London to escape the chains of a repressive religion-bound rural life.

Defying the sexual mores of the time and openly dealing with female sexuality, her work was too much for religion pinned Ireland.

The books were banned and even became the subject of fraught correspondence between the guardians of Ireland's morals and legals – Archbishop John Charles McQuaid and the Justice Minister Charles J Haughey. It is perhaps ironic that outside the big gate entrance of Drewsborough House in 2007, the parish priest officiated at the unveiling of an eerie photo plaque commemoration of the author, speaking about the "well deserved" local honour for the parish's most famous daughter.

The irony would not have been lost on older parishioners present, nor perhaps on O'Brien herself – a half century earlier a ceremonial book burning of "The Lonely Girl" was taking place in the church grounds, the local priest was condemning her from the pulpit while locals were excoriating her work (the postmistress told her father she should be kicked naked through the town).

Perhaps O'Brien was also just a little bit responsible for igniting local fevers. An excerpt from a Paris Review interview reads: "Edna O'Brien was born in the west of Ireland in a small village she describes as 'enclosed, fervid, and bigoted'. Literature was taboo, and those books that penetrated the parish were loaned by the page. O'Brien's father was a farmer who 'carried on in that glorious line of profligate Irishmen'. Her mother, who had worked as a maid in Brooklyn, always yearned to return to America. O'Brien's childhood was unhappy, but she believes it gave her both the need and the impetus to write. "Writing," she says, "is the product of a deeply disturbed psyche, and by no means therapeutic."

O'Brien has said she was close to her mother Lena, a strong-willed woman and fearful of her father who often had drunken explosions and alcoholically quaffed 600 acres of land down to a snifter of the seven which accompanies Drewsborough to auction next month.

She described her childhood at Drewsborough as being one of "genteel poverty" ("There was a gatelodge but the people in the gatehouse used to give us money"). The trials and tribulations of Ireland's first modern lady writer of note have been much hackneyed about over the years – eloping with a man twice her age (the writer Ernie Gebler who later claimed credit for her books), her escape from him, the LSD trips (reportedly accompanied by Beckett as a guardian), the allegations of affairs with famous literary figures and a steady stream of books which have been both feted and dismissed in equal measure, but nearly all sprouted from some black Irish homegrown subject matter.

When asked which of her two country girls, Cait and Baba, she represented, O'Brien claimed that they stood for two sides of her own personality – the bold and enterprising side on one hand and the sensitive and vulnerable on the other.

Those who view the house in the run up to July's auction will also wonder which sides of this elegant but worn abode are carried by O'Brien, if any at all.

Whatever you say about Drewsborough, you can't knock it – it's been listed and is now a fully protected national architectural treasure.

The estate agent is Noel Corcoran 062-52233.

Indo Property

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