"The drb sustains a level of commentary on Irish and international matters that no other journal in Ireland and few elsewhere can reach. It deserves all the support that can be given it." X
Space to Think, a new book celebrating ten years of the Dublin Review of Books More Information 

Staying Grounded

Ronan Sheehan

The Third Daughter: A Retrospective, by Eileen O’Mara Walsh, Lilliput Press, 288 pp, €20, ISBN: 978-1843516378

Rather than “memoir” or “autobiography”, Eileen O’Mara Walsh chooses a term from the world of painting, “retrospective”, to define the genre in which she places this excellent account of her life and work. The story concludes with the death of Owen Walsh, a painter, her long-term partner and the father of her son. This is the final paragraph:

My dreamlike state continued on the drive back to Louisburgh. It was late evening, the sun was going down. On an impulse I took out the car again and drove down to the harbour. “Red in the evening a shepherd’s delight, red in the morning a sailor’s.” Then I knew the sense of lightness was happiness. I was not sad. I was glad. It was over.”

Does she mean the death and its attendant rituals? Or the long, turbulent, often deeply painful relationship with the deceased? It’s for the reader to interpret.

But that’s not the end. There’s a postscript:

A retrospective exhibition of the work of Owen Walsh opened in The Linenhall Gallery, Castlebar in June 2012 and transferred to the National College of Art and Design Gallery in July.

Does this signify an affirmation of the validity of perhaps a different perspective on the part of Owen Walsh of their shared experience? It’s for the reader to interpret.

It’s still not the end. Like in At Swim Two Birds, there are three endings. There’s an appendix. A correspondence between Joan Follwell, Eileen’s English mother, and the philosopher Bertrand Russell, made between April 1927 and September 1929. Joan lives in London, working in an office, sharing a bedroom with another young woman. She is single. Russell is married. He is fifty-seven, she is twenty-one. The relationship becomes intimate. The correspondence shows Joan to be an independent, courageous, moral, spirited woman. She sets an example which inspires her daughter throughout her life.

Three O’Maras feature in the Dictionary of Irish Biography, scions of a Limerick dynasty. Stephen O'Mara (1844-1926) bacon manufacturer, MP and mayor of Limerick. Joseph O’Mara (1864-1927) tenor and opera singer. James O’Mara (1873-1948) bacon merchant, politician, Sinn Féin fundraiser. In Tipperary the name Toomyvara, Tuaim Uí Mheára, “burial ground of the O’Mearas” relates to the family, who held the priory and burial place there in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. O’Maras or O’Mearas fought at the Siege of Limerick and followed King James into exile.

Eileen O’Mara Walsh’s account of her immediate family blends seamlessly into an account of her extended family, widening to a view of the Limerick society in which she spent her childhood and gradually to a view of Irish society as a whole. A convention among the Irish literati has been the rejection of Irish society as a locus of value in favour of the brilliant individual or the sensational family. Eileen O’Mara Walsh identifies with Irish society. She is critical of that society, as befits the daughter of a republican father and a Fabian socialist mother. But she does not fly to the continent to escape the death-dealing clericalism, à la Stephen Dedalus and his followers. Rather she develops a career in the travel business in Ireland. She contributes to the development of Irish tourism, a native industry. Her own business is O’Mara Travel. She sits on the boards of Bord Failte and Aer Lingus and her account of how these enterprises were managed by different politicians is a remarkable feature of the book.

Born in 1941, she attended Laurel Hill in Limerick for a couple of years. A dispute in the family bacon business sent Power O’Mara and his family to Dublin in 1953, where they lived in a succession of apartments in Dartmouth Square, Fitzwilliam Square and then 28 Leeson Park, the family home for twenty years. This meant a transfer from Limerick society to Dublin society:

My own entry into Dublin society was inauspicious from the first. I was enrolled after the start of term in Second Year at the Dominican Convent, Muckross Park, in Donnybrook. An ordeal in itself to be ushered into a strange classroom and a sea of strange faces.

Power O’Mara becomes business manager of The Globe Theatre. He and Joan join the loose collection of writers, actors, academics, journalists, politicians and civil servants who frequent O’Neills of Merrion Row. The so-called Dublin bohemia of the 1940s and 1950s has, by tradition, become identified as the world of Brian O’Nolan, Patrick Kavanagh and Brendan Behan: literary heroes apparently, whose exploits contrast with the failure of a dull and depressed society. Anthony Cronin’s Dead As Doornails famously explores this milieu.

Eileen O’Mara Walsh does not mythologise this scene. Neither does she debunk it. She offers a clear account of it, a vision full of warmth and affection for indivduals to whom she was close, not all of them celebrities. So, the literati are interesting, but no more interesting or significant than business people or politicians she meets. Or, for that matter, the plain citizens.

After school she gets a teaching job in a Belgian convent. Then in a hotel in London. She hears Bertrand Russell speak at a CND rally in Trafalgar Square and resists the temptation to introduce herself. Then Paris, L’Union Mondiale des Organisations Catholiques and her first love affair ‑ with artist Pierre Catzeflis:

Clear grey Steve McQueen eyes, full-lipped and square-jawed, he gazes straight at me from the tiny passport photo I found in the diary, side-by-side with my own taken the same day. I have a limpid look, serene and pleased with myself, and why not? Paris, Pierre and spring were on the way.

Events contrive to undermine this relationship. But back in Dublin in February 1962 another relationship beckons:

I first became aware of Owen Walsh. He was a striking figure then, slim, blonde and blue-eyed. He had the look of a Greek Pan, full-lipped, eyes slanted, high cheekbones, hair long, thick and often unkempt, a cross between Peter O’Toole and Rudolf Nureyev. In fact this was a Mayo man from Westport with all the conservative traditions of a male-dominated rural culture in perennial battle with the artist within.

They get a flat at 15 Herbert Street. She works as a bilingual clerk in the French embassy on Ailesbury Road. In 1963 she is secretary to The Irish Council of The European Movement. Her experience of Dublin’s literary world grows, not always happily.

She keeps a diary and often quotes from it. As lawyers know, the contemporaneous note is credible evidence. March 1967 finds her as travel adviser in the Irish Tourist Board’s new Paris office:

A dream job, a new venture for Ireland’s neophyte tourism industry and a chance to return to my beloved Paris.

An opportunity to be part of a serious, government-sponsored industry. Goodbye Éamon de Valera, hello Seán Lemass. Then back to Dublin to work with USIT. Here Eileen has the chance to put some of her own ideas into practice: a few succeed. USIT opens a range of flights to North America, offering students an alternative to summer employment in the canning factories of eastern England. In time, she expands the USIT catchment to embrace the more lucrative adult market. This involves attendance at international trade fairs in exotic locations. Not forgetting old friends, she arranges economy trips abroad for “the McDaid’s set”. Then she is pregnant and unwed, in Ireland in 1975:

Not for me a wretched pregnancy, skulking under the disapproving eye of Catholic Ireland. I was unaware or unconscious of any social obloquy. I had the support of the man I loved, a secure and convivial job, and an enthusiastic if startled circle of friends"

She changes her name by deed poll to Eileen O’Mara Walsh “so that when this as yet unknown offspring was going to school, it would bear both its mother’s and father’s names”. Eoghan enters the world in Mount Carmel hospital and is christened at University Church, St.Stephen’s Green. Eileen buys a house in Sandymount, leaves USIT and establishes the O’Mara Travel Company. The financing of these transactions is set out in lucid detail: the kind of information most Irish novels and memoirs fastidiously eschew.

Eileen O’Mara Walsh supports the belief of ancient Romans that it is better not to write until one has reached retirement age. What could you know of life until you have lived it? Until you had experience. Until you had survived.

Penultimately, a small correction: on page 149 there is mention of Tomas O’Beirne and his wife, beloved regulars of O’Brien’s, Upper Leeson Street. Tomas’s wife’s name is Colette, not Marie as the author has it.

This book offers a mature vision, a retrospective: of a woman growing in this society as it grows, making the best of the slender opportunities it affords. The foundation of that vision is love. Love animates every page. By the end, we feel we have shared her experience, have lived it, in mind and heart. True writing is required to achieve this result. True writing, indeed superb writing, is what Eileen O’Mara Walsh gives us in a work that will, in my estimation, become part of the Dublin canon alongside a handful of the works she encountered in Baggot Street fifty years ago.

1/9/2015

Ronan Sheehan is a writer-solicitor who has lived in the Upper Leeson Street area of Dublin for forty years and is familiar with the pubs Eileen O’Mara Walsh so lovingly describes, especially O’Briens and The Leeson Lounge.

Categories