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Tag: Elizabeth Bowen

Hurling: Letter from Ireland (1937)

Sunday, 20 May, 2018

For some people in the Northern Hemisphere, summer begins with the start of the Munster Hurling Senior Championship. It’s a cultural thing that has its roots in an agrarian society driven by grass growth and the arrival of better weather. Today, the festival opens at 2 pm with Limerick vs. Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds.

The connection between Munster hurling and Graham Greene would not be known to most attending today’s game, but the great English novelist was the editor of Night and Day, described as a British rival to the New Yorker, in the 1930s and during its brief life he published a piece titled Letter from Ireland by Elizabeth Bowen, the doyenne of Anglo-Irish writing. Snippet:

“Cork left Cork for Killarney when the All Ireland Hurley Finals were played there. Tipperary won. This was a great day for the whole of the South of Ireland; special trains were run and the roads for a hundred miles round streamed with cars and bicycles, most of them flying flags. The Tipperary contingent passed my way. Those who unluckily could not get to Killarney stood on banks for hours to watch the traffic. This is, in the literal sense, a very quiet country: the Troubles and civil war were fought out in an almost unbroken hush, punctuated by a few explosions or shots. Voices are seldom raised, and you can (so to speak) hear a dog bark or a milk-cart rattle or a funeral bell toll two counties away. But these great Sundays of sport galvanise everything; from the moment you wake you know that something is going on.

Hurley is the fastest game, short of ice hockey, that I have ever watched. It is a sort of high-speed overhead hockey, played with sticks with flat wooden blades, and it looks even more dangerous that it apparently is. Though a game that would melt you in the Antarctic, it is, for some reason, played only in summer.”

There are gems of appraisal and style in everything that Elizabeth Bowen wrote. Her observation that “the Troubles and civil war were fought out in an almost unbroken hush,” is revealing, given that her Letter from Ireland was published just 14 years after the conflict ended, and “Cork left Cork for Killarney” is delightful. Today, some 80 years later, Tipperary will leave Tipperary for Limerick.

Limerick vs. Tipperary


The Good Hat: Ms Bowen and Mrs Trump

Wednesday, 25 April, 2018 0 Comments

First lady Melania Trump wore a dramatic white hat yesterday as she and her husband Donald hosted French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron for a White House state visit. The wide, flat-brimmed creation was designed by Hervé Pierre and not since Pharrell Williams wore a 10-gallon item to the 2014 Grammys has a “tit for tat” (Cockney rhyming slang) created such waves. Social media users immediately compared the look to Beyoncé’s black “Formation” hat.

Talking of hats, in 1950, the great Anglo-Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen provided an introduction to The A B C Of Millinery by Madame Eva Ritcher. Snippet: “For centuries, Woman has desired that her head-covering — be it cap, bonnet or hat — should in itself be a thing of beauty. A thing which shall at once express and flatter the wearer and be, gaily, in tune with her own time.” When she was right, she was right.

Bowen concludes her introduction: “My advice to readers who cannot hope to embark on the actual making of hats is this — take what you’ve learned from these pages to heart when you go shopping. No longer will you, in show rooms, find yourselves adrift, depressed and confused. Let this book be your guide to the Good Hat.” Chapeau!

Flotus with hat


Elizabeth Bowen: Goldilocks and Comics et al.

Wednesday, 31 January, 2018 0 Comments

Hollywood’s comic-book output shows no signs of slowing and this year will be especially packed with capes and tights and politically-correct superheroes. Coming soon: Black Panther, New Mutants, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Aquaman and many, many more.

In August 1962, long before Hollywood turned into a conveyor belt for such dross, Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, graced the pages of the New York Times Book Review with a piece titled Comeback of Goldilocks et al. “Much to be learnt from story-telling to children,” she had written in her Notes on Writing a Novel in 1950, and she expanded on the theme in her NYTBR article. “The fairy tale,” she observed, “in its extreme simplicity, is a supreme test of the narrator’s art. This is a tale of a kind to be told, not read.”

As regards the difference between fairy tales and comics, Bowen took a very definite stance and her thoughts from almost six decades ago are astonishingly timely, particularly in light of what’s being churned out for the big screen today. Snippet:

“The horror, to me, of comics (out-and-out ‘horror comics’ or otherwise) is their drabness, their visual ugliness, the lack — or, at any rate, the extreme rarity — of anything like or approaching wit in them and (for all their preposterous element) their prosaicness.”

And Goldilocks? This is typical Bowen: “And what was Goldilocks up to, making free with all that she found in The Three Bears’ cottage, while its proprietors (socially unknown to her) were out?” That “socially unknown to her” there is priceless.

By the way Elizabeth Bowen did try her hand at the fairy tale genre with a book titled The Good Tiger, which was published in 1965. A contemporary review noted that it was: “… the straight-faced record of a tiger on the loose among adults and children who accept his presence with absent-minded aplomb. The text is good exercise for beginning readers without having the sound of heavily managed, controlled vocabulary.”

The Good Tiger


New Year’s reading: Bowen’s Court

Friday, 5 January, 2018 0 Comments

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


Remembering the crowded-out ones

Sunday, 24 December, 2017 0 Comments

In her essay, “The Light in the Dark”, which was published in the American edition of Vogue in 1950, Elizabeth Bowen pondered her own childhood and the meaning of the Christ child. Her love of the Nativity didn’t prevent her, however, from accepting that Christmas is, for many, a time of desperation:

“There are those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless to them — for this is a season to which natural indifference is impossible; those who dread or hate it shrink from its power. And — multiplied by the catastrophes of the world there are the derelict, the placeless; those who are where they are under duress, or those who find themselves by sheer bleak fortuity, without ties or love. Of these many, how few can be comforted — at least concretely; the practical reach and scope of our giving, in view of this trouble, can but seem poor and small. We can, only, humbly keep these unknown in mind — which is to say in imagination. The Child was born of his travel-wearied Mother in a stable because there was no room at the inn. Is not this a time to remember the crowded-out ones? Now is it, at Christmas, when we feel to the full the happiest implications of being human, that the sense of all other humanity most insistently presses against our doors and windows. To meet it, we send out into the dark some thought — however groping, vague and unformulated. Who is to say, at this season, what mystic circuit may set itself up between man and man?”

Elizabeth Bowen, like T.S. Eliot, placed Christianity at the core of her meditations on Christmas and that’s why her words continue to resonate.

Elizabeth Bowen


The Christmas Toast: Home!

Saturday, 23 December, 2017 0 Comments

“The art of living beautifully…” is the motto of Homes & Gardens, a monthly magazine that has been published in London since 1919. The December 1942 issue featured an article by Elizabeth Bowen titled “The Christmas Toast is ‘Home!’ and an editor’s note accompanying the war-time piece pointed out, with typical British understatement, that “travelling may be impossible, none but the plainest food may be procurable and the Xmas holiday itself may make unexpected demands on our time and energy.” It was in this context that Elizabeth Bowen celebrated the meaning of “home” at Christmas:

“Above all, the home means people — their trust in each other, their happy habits of living, the calendar, year by year, of family life — returning seasons, anniversaries, birthdays and, above all, Christmas, the greatest home festival. At Christmas, how strong the pull of the home is! There comes a call that our hearts cannot deny. At Christmas, we turn to our own people: we go home. And, when the Christmas journey cannot be made in real life, it is made with all the more longing, in the imagination. The Christmas letter, or telegram from the exile to the people at home, saying, ‘I am with you today,’ speaks a real truth. At Christmas, wherever we find ourselves, our hearts are back in the beloved place.”

When Elizabeth Bowen was writing those words, the news was filled with reports of crucial battles in far-away places: Stalingrad, El Alamein, Guadalcanal. The very survival of civilization was at stake, but Bowen was resolute in her belief in victory. “Peace will see many homecomings,” she predicted, and the light of Christmas gave her hope. “Christmas speaks the message of an eternal kindness. The Christmas Toast is – Home!'”

Elizabeth Bowen

Tomorrow, here, those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless.


Home for Christmas

Friday, 22 December, 2017 0 Comments

Mademoiselle was an American women’s magazine first published in 1935. It was popular and profitable for six decades but changing tastes and the arrival of new media platforms led to a decline in readership and a loss of advertising revenue. The November 2001 issue was the final one. Fashion was the primary focus but Mademoiselle was also known for publishing stories by authors such as Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, Jane Smiley, Paul Bowles, Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Munro.

In 1955, Mademoiselle published “Home for Christmas” by Elizabeth Bowen. The theme is the returns and reunions that are hallmarks of the season but there’s another current running through the piece and it’s manifest in the final brace of sentences: “Dearer than memory, brighter than expectation is the ever returning now of Christmas. Why else, each time we greet its return, should happiness ring out in us like a peal of bells?” In this way, Bowen lets us know that the spiritual and Christian aspects of Christmas are central to its meaning. The opening of the story is magical:

“This is meeting-again time. Home is the magnet. The winter land roars and hums with the eager speed of return journeys. The dark is noisy and bright with late-night arrivals — doors thrown open, running shadows on snow, open arms, kisses, voices and laughter, laughter at everything and nothing. Inarticulate, giddying and confused are those original minutes of being back again. The very familiarity of everything acts like a shock. Contentment has to be drawn in slowly, steadingingly, in deep breaths — there is so much of it. We rely on home not to change, and it does not, wherefore we give thanks. Again Christmas: abiding point of return. Set apart from its mystery, mood and magic, the season seems in a way to stand outside time. All that is dear, that is lasting, renews its hold on us: we are home again.”

Bowen's Court

What a perfect phrase: “Christmas: abiding point of return.” Tomorrow, here, the Christmas toast at Bowen’s Court.


Bowen’s Court: the presence of an absence

Thursday, 21 December, 2017 0 Comments

When she was doing her MA in “Irish Writing and Film”, Jane Farrell created a blog called Ireland — Text and Screen. One of her most popular posts was about Elizabeth Bowen and her home, Bowen’s Court, and the reason for writing it was: “My mother’s homeplace is a few short miles from this location, and my grandmother met the lady herself, so from a young age I was always keen to learn more about this site. Besides that layer of interest, I am also an avid Bowen reader.”

Geographical note: To put things in local, north Cork perspective, the Bowens lived near Kildorrery and the Farrells near Doneraile.

Jane Farrell’s blog post of 16 October 2014 was titled “What remains of Bowen’s Court?” and it contains numerous valuable insights:

“Bowen had a great fear that the house would burn down (a trope in her fiction) but its tragic fate was no less devastating. The house which once embodied so many memories for Bowen (and transferred to us as her readers) is now obsolete and nothing remains except a gate and a field. However, the land will always bear the weight of its important inheritance and I find it difficult to envision what could ever take its place.”

Equally valuable are the comments the blog post attracted. Here’s one dated 9 November 2015 by Anne Bowen:

“I too am a Bowen. My father, originally from Co. Cork, told me of the connection with Bowenscourt and the branch of the family that moved to Limerick before moving back to Cork. For years I hoped to find a piece of the silverware emblazoned with the hawk. Or indeed any item connected with Bowenscourt. I have visited the site often and the Bowen graves in Farahy Church. Am wondering where the family portraits are now. I see some of the family characteristics in my own family… red hair, nervous disposition, clumsiness etc all very interesting.”

Jane Farrell concluded her post about Bowen’s Court with an evocative observation that sums up the meaning of its loss, “…in spite of the glaring absence of the house, it still maintains a presence.”

Bowen's Court

Tomorrow, here, Elizabeth Bowen on what she called the “abiding point of return”. For her that meant, home and Christmas.


Christmas at Bowen’s Court

Wednesday, 20 December, 2017 0 Comments

Fleur Cowles, an American expatriate writer, editor, painter, hostess and philanthropist, launched Flair in 1950. Alas, lavish production costs exceed revenue and Flair folded after a year, but it remains one of the most ground-breaking magazines in modern history. “Christmas at Bowen’s Court” appeared in Flair 1.11 (December 1950) and Elizabeth Bowen used the essay to blend the history of her Georgian home with the spiritual meaning of Christmas. Her love affair with the great Anglo-Irish house is tangible in this snippet:

“To speak of the house as awaiting one would be untrue — by coming back, one no more than rejoins oneself to an existence which is absolutely, tranquilly and timelessly independent of any one person. The effect of this is balm — the sense of fret, of crisis which one has come to associate with one’s own identity slips away. In that moment, one becomes simply another wanderer back for Christmas. As for Christmas, it has already fully taken possession. To this, the Festival, the house does defer, as it does to no individual son or daughter. An august, additional presence is to be felt as I walk from one to another of the firelit rooms.”

Horses and hounds at Bowen's Court

Circumstances forced Elizabeth Bowen to sell Bowen’s Court in 1959 and the wanton destruction of this cornerstone of Anglo-Irish heritage by its new owner in 1961 was a crime against history.

Tomorrow, here, a local memory of the ghosts of Bowen’s Court.


A portrait of Elizabeth Bowen

Tuesday, 19 December, 2017 0 Comments

Our Christmas meditations are inspired this year by the work of Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, who died in 1973. But who was Elizabeth Bowen?

The Irish artist Patrick Hennessy captured a crucial aspect of her identity in 1957 with his portrait of the writer standing at the head of the staircase in her family home, Bowen’s Court, in north county Cork. Her ancestors had built the house in Cromwellian times and her novel The Last September, set during the Irish War of Independence records the fears, dilemmas and decline of her class — the Anglo-Irish. She sold Bowen’s Court in 1959, and was broken-hearted when it was promptly demolished by the new, local, philistine owner.

Patrick Hennessy uses aspects of surrealism and magic realism in his portrait of Elizabeth Bowen to create an image of a great woman at home in her great house.

Elizabeth Bowen

“The happy passive nature, locked up with itself like a mirror in an airy room, reflects what goes on but demands not to be approached. A pact with life, a pact of immunity, appears to exist. But this pact is not respected for ever — a street accident, an overheard quarrel, a certain note in a voice, a face coming too close, a tree being blown down, someone’s unjust fate.” — Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

Tomorrow, coming home to Bowen’s Court for Christmas.


Christmas with Elizabeth Bowen

Monday, 18 December, 2017 0 Comments

Now that the third Sunday of Advent is behind us, it’s time to really focus on Christmas and we’ll be doing that in the coming week with the help of Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, who died in 1973. Her writing about the meaning of Christmas is full of beauty and poignancy, as we’ll see over the course of the next seven posts, and we’re starting with an excerpt from an essay titled “The Light in the Dark” that she wrote for the American edition of Vogue in 1950. Snippet:

“The idea of Christmas is like a note struck on glass — long ago and forever. For each of us, this is the earliest memory of the soul. Day-to-day existence, as it goes on, drowns so much in its clamour, deadens so many echoes — but never this. Behind our busy thoughts and distracted senses remains a silence in which, again each year, the sweet resounding ring of the note is heard. We have expected Christmas, almost without knowing — wherever we are, wherever we turn, it claims us. The Holy Night links up all childhoods; we return to our own — to the first music, the first pictures, the first innocent and mysterious thrill and stir. With the folds of the darkness, something has happened; even the cities know it, and the winter country seems to hold its breath. Once more we have the vision of wide night snow, of the shepherds listening and looking up into the air rustling with wings of singing angels, and the Star in the blue of the frosty firmament. This is a time when magic joins hands with holiness. The dear, silly, gaudy symbolism of Christmas cards stems from race myths and ancient midwinter rites. We inherit this feast from out of the dark time before Christmas morning — mankind sought it, from some primitive need.”

Tomorrow, a famous portrait of Elizabeth Bowen.