THE STRANGE CASE OF THE MISSING HOUSE—WHICH HAS NOW BEEN FOUND!
THANK YOU, ANNE
It is somewhat careless to lose a house. They tend to be substantial things. They are not prone to fall behind the hall table—as with car keys—or to get stuck in the sofa like your credit card. They protrude, and they normally stay in one location for a considerable time.
Yet I lost Beechpark for a considerable time. It left a substantial hole in my memories—not a good thing if one is a writer. In truth, I didn’t so much lose the house itself, but I lost the name—and that meant a great deal because a name can be the key to unlocking memories. If you have a lover, you don’t want to think of her as just “her.” You want to think of her as Bunny, or Alison, or Annie—or some such. Names are evocative things—especially when they are attached to some very special memories.
Thanks to the dedication of a relation of mine—a veritable Irish Sherlock Holmes, Anne Hyland—Beechpark has been found; and I am thrilled, overjoyed, and generally thoroughly delighted—and all before lunch!
My mother and I had a difficult relationship—she really had no idea how to bring up boys, and I was her first (five boys and six girls would follow)—so she solved her problem by sending me to boarding school far too young (I was 5) and then to relatives at Easter and during the Summer.
Typically, I was packed off to Beechpark at Easter, and the above house was where I stayed. At the time, it was owned by the Brodies, better known to me as “The Fannys” because Uncle Cecil Brodie’s wife was called Fanny and her sister was Kitty. They should, of course, have been called “The Brodies,”—and sometime they were—but “The Fannys” sounder more fun. Just to confuse the situation, Kitty’s surname was “Cahill.” She never married.
A quick aside on Kitty. One day her brother Bobby Cahill went shooting, and when crossing a fence carrying a loaded shotgun—evidently not equipped with a safety-catch—blew most of his left arm off. It was Kitty who dealt with the damage. She looked as if she would faint at the sight of blood, but like most of her breed—she was remarkably resilient and tough. Bobby made an excellent recovery and functioned with one arm as if he had two. Driving with him—a stick shift was normal in those days—was interesting. His wife, Joanna, was from New Zealand, and sent me home-made cookies on my birthday for years.
Uncle Cecil—Captain John Cecil Brodie—was a retired horse trainer of some distinction who had gone right through WW I as an officer in the South Irish Horse. Cavalryman or not, their horses had soon been taken away, and they fought in the trenches. Cecil was wounded multiple times—his arms and legs were different lengths after he was patched up—and he was also gassed.
As a consequence, his lungs were affected, and his coughing in the morning could be heard around the house. For all that, I loved him and would walk up the drive with him—a beautiful drive in those days—while he sang WWI songs in French (the words were not necessarily suitable for my young’s ears). Typically he would have a shotgun under his arm—carried broken open, of course—but I never saw him fire a shot.
I treasured those times, perhaps because because I didn’t have a father. My mother had neglected to marry mine; my first step-father had died of cancer—and his replacement had not yet appeared. Meanwhile, to a very small boy, Uncle Cecil was awesome. He was a war hero, he was kind, he could be very funny, and all the locals called him “Captain” and doffed their caps to him. They still did that in that part of the world. If Ireland was behind the times in those days—which it certainly was—County Offaly was behind Ireland.
The Fannys had a perfect division of labor. Aunt Fanny—an impressively talented gardener—did all the outdoor work, which included running the small poultry farm and maintaining an enormous walled garden (she had a deeply tanned face, a marvelous grin and muscles of steel) whereas Kitty, pink and plump and cuddly, ran the house itself, and produced delicious meal after delicious meal on a minimum budget. Meanwhile, I licked the cake bowls and wandered around the farm—and off it—and had adventures. And Uncle Cecil read the paper and rested; because, in truth, he couldn’t do much else. He was elderly, had been badly wounded, and was very frail. Yet his tweedy presence, and his sense of humor, were vastly comforting.
Food was very important in Beechpark—particularly to Fanny who must have burned up as many calories as a lumberjack (she was a phenomenal worker). Accordingly, not only was there always a substantial breakfast and lunch, but tea at 4.00 pm was a thing of wonder because Kitty excelled at home-made bread, jam and cakes—and I think she churned the butter too. And then came supper and then Fannies would relax with the radio, a glass of sherry and the racing page. Both were demon gamblers and consistently successful at it. After all, Uncle Cecil had been the Agha Khan’s trainer. They knew form. Bookies quailed when they approached.
I was in school when I heard that Uncle Cecil had died. The year was 1957 and I was about 13 at the time. At my request, one of the monks said a mass for him—and I cried like a baby. I cried for Uncle Cecil, because I had loved him—and I cried because I knew a very special part of my life was over.
Life at home and at boarding school—particularly when I was small and an easy target—was insecure, violent and pretty damn miserable. And the food was terrible. Today, I am sure a shrink would say I was an abused child—though I never think of myself that way. Beating your children was normal when I grew up, and so was bullying in schools. If my mother was harsh enough to send me to boarding school at an age when I was too small to defend myself; well, such were the breaks.
The Fannys and my grandmother showed me that there was another way of life, which was free of violence (unless you were a chicken) and where one could actually feel safe be happy. This was a major discovery as far as I was concerned—and, without question—it changed my life for the better. In fact, it has made me remarkably content even in face of adversity.
Such is the impact of a few people who knew how to behave decently—and one who could really cook. Good food made from fresh ingredients calms both the body and the soul.
NOTE: The above photo does not show Beechpark at its best. In the days of the Fannys the gardens were kept impeccably, and the herbaceous borders were a sight to behold. However, the Fannys sold after Cecil died and moved to a much smaller house in Dublin. I stayed in touch, as best I could, but it was never quite the same. Sometimes magic runs its course.
I’m told the next Beechpark owners, the Kennys, maintained the high standard. However, they sold to a property developer a few years ago, and what you see now reflects some years of neglect. Nonetheless, I’m still glad to see the place again.
Beechpark or Beech Park? I seem to recall the latter but after more than half a century, I just don’t know. More detective work required.