Subscribe via RSS Feed Connect on Google Plus Connect on Flickr

New Year’s reading: Bowen’s Court

Friday, 5 January, 2018

We’re finishing our week of reading books that were the presents of this Christmas past. On Monday, we had The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from Noel Donnelly, on Tuesday it was Five Escape Brexit Island, placed in the Rainy Day Xmas stocking by Ian McMaster, on Wednesday was the turn of Change Agent, given to this blogger by himself, and yesterday was Motherfoclóir, put under the tree in Clontarf by Brian. This series ends today with Bowen’s Court & Seven Winters by Elizabeth Bowen, a Christmas present from our valiant sister, Mary.

Bowen’s Court & Seven Winters is the history of one Anglo-Irish family in north County Cork, from the Cromwellian conquest of Ireland in 1653 until 1959, when Elizabeth Bowen, the last of the family, was forced to sell the house she adored. With the skill that marks all her writing, she describes the lives and loves, the highs and lows of ten generations of Bowens. These were a class apart — the Protestant Irish gentry — and theirs was a story of war, land, powerful women, ruinous lawsuits, horses, hunting, entertaining, sex, drinking, melancholy and loss.

The date is 5 August 1914 and the Bowens have set out from their estate by pony and trap for a party at Mitchelstown Castle, the home of the Earls of Kingston. They stopped at the village of Rockmills to collect Silver Oliver, a playmate of the 15-year-old Elizabeth, and they could not have anticipated that an event in far-off Sarajevo would start a conflagration that would inspire Irish men to burn Mitchelstown Castle to the ground on 12 August 1922. Snippet:

At Rockmills my father — whose manner, I do remember had been growing graver with every minute — stopped the pony and went into the post office. There was a minute to wait, with the pony stamping, before I again saw him framed in the low dark door. He cleared his throat and said: “England has declared war on Germany.” Getting back into the trap, he added: “I suppose it could not be helped.” All I could say was: “Then can’t we go to the garden party?” … We picked up Silver Oliver and drove to Mitchelstown — Henry, with his whole mind, courteously answering a rattle of questions from us girls. If at ten or twelve I had been precocious, at fifteen I was virtually idiotic. The bye-roads had dried in the wind and were glaring white; the War already had given them an unreal look.

That afternoon we walked up the Castle avenue, greeted by the gusty sound of a band. The hosts of the party were the late Lady Kingston’s second husband, Mr. Willie Webber, and his companion, Miss Minnie Fairholme. They were not young, and, owing to the extreme draughtiness everywhere, they received their guests indoors, at the far end of Big George’s gallery. In virtue of this being a garden party, and of the fact that it was not actually raining, pressure was put on the guests to proceed outside — people only covertly made incursions into the chain of brocade saloons. Wind raced round the Castle terraces, naked under the Galtees; grit blew into the ices; the band clung, with some trouble, to its exposed place. The tremendous news certainly made that party, which might have been rather flat. Almost everyone said they wondered if they really ought to have come, but they had come — rightly: this was a time to gather. This was an assemblage of Anglo-Irish people from all over north-east County Cork, from the counties of Limerick, Waterford, Tipperary. For miles around, each isolated big house had disgorged its talker, this first day of the war. The tension of months, of years — outlying tension of Europe, inner tension of Ireland — broke in a spate of words. Braced against the gale of the mountains, licking dust from their lips, these were the unmartialled loyalists of the South. Not a family had not put out, like Bowen’s Court, its generations of military brothers — tablets in Protestant churches recorded deaths in remote battles; swords hung in halls. If the Anglo-Irish live on and for a myth, for that myth they constantly shed their blood. So, on this August 1914 day of grandeur and gravity, the Ascendency rallied, renewed itself.

It was an afternoon when the simplest person begins to anticipate memory — this Mitchelstown garden party, it was agreed, would remain in everyone’s memory as historic. It was also a more final scene than we knew. Ten years hence, it was all to seem like a dream — and the Castle itself would be a few bleached stumps on the plateau. Today, the terraces are obliterated, and grass grows where the saloons were. Many of those guests, those vehement talkers, would be scattered, houseless, sonless, or themselves dead. That war — or call it now that first phase of war — was to go far before it had done with us.

Elizabeth Bowen

Comments are closed.