Strange Times

Daydreaming, I used to imagine the atmosphere. Sirens, bomb shelters, airplanes, broken streets, children in shorts and ankle socks with no elastic, old women picking over the remnants of their life. Queuing, always queuing, for bread, or sugar, everyone groaning under the weight of war. I imagined that silence was more than that. Silence was dark, expectant, and menacing; strange things loitered in the corners, just out of reach. Traumatized by food stamps and curfews, and each left bereft, my great aunts did their weekly shopping as though still caught up way back then. They’d zig zag from shop to shop searching out the cheapest bread, or cans of anything as long as it was one penny less expensive than in the other place. They’d zig zag all day, up and down and across the town, filling their wheelie trolleys to the brim as if still controlled by rationing.

They lived secretive lives all together in a huge Victorian house, with two long sets of stairs between the front door and the kitchen. They’d heave their Saturday haul all the way to the yellow Formica table, and then spend hours packing the long dank cupboards at either side of the fireplace. Those presses were stock piled with mushy peas, beans, rice, tea, anchovies, salad cream, and packet upon orange packet of cream crackers. The ladder to reach the top shelf was stored in a gap between the right hand cupboard and the window wall. It wasn’t used much, and only my tallest great aunt was allowed to climb up. One side, by the window, was reserved for Christmas cake and puddings. The other side, which hid a slew of copper pipes from the back boiler in the fire place, was used to store a hoard of old, rusty baking tins. My great aunts had a carpet in their kitchen. That always struck me as odd, as if the room had been something else, but was forced into service against its will. The kitchen sink, continually stacked high, was balanced on four wooden legs pressed against the window, in the place, I imagined, where a dressing table might once have stood. A bottled gas cooker, with eye level grill, always spotless, was all the rage in the 1940s. Coated in creamy white enamel, in my minds eye it stood where feather pillows might once have been.

Their one bathroom was on in the return a few steps up from the kitchen. It had a carpet too. Someone decided to paint the carpet with purple emulsion to brighten it up, so it was hard underfoot, and hideous when damp. There was a large water geyser over the enamel bath, and a rusty water mark below the hot water tap. To the right of the window was a Victorian hand basin with squared off corners. A clothes line hung from wall to wall across the window, which, like every window in the house, was sheathed in voluminous netting, but in this case, gathered in the center with an elastic band. A wide window sill provided an ideal home for a magnificent array of soap of every size, colour and smell, from places as far away as Majorca, Malta, the Isle of Man, and Kilkenny. Wrapped in decorative paper, or clear plastic, some with ribbons and bows, others decorated with tiny flowers, nobody ever opened a soap from the window sill. My great aunts used Pears soap, one bar, shared between the bath and the hand basin.

If not in the kitchen, my great aunts lived in their large front drawing room, so large that it held two enormous couches and several plump armchairs at one end, and a huge dining table at the other. The tallest aunt, the one who found it hardest to bend, emptied the ashes and washed the tiled hearth before setting the fire with tightly rolled and curled lengths of newspaper. She hid stacks of newspapers behind the couch, covered with an old table cloth, just in case. Another, the eldest, hid little piles of chocolate and sweets down the side of her cushion. They sat every night, on top of the coal fire, sometimes in unison, but often disgruntled, curling their hair in clips, just as they had always done, and hot milky drinking tea from china cups and saucers, the teapot idling on an old iron stand in front of the flames. Sometimes they watched the television. More often they listened to the radio, or the wireless, as they called it. They never listened to music, and they did not buy books, preferring instead to go to the library. Brought up in a strange world, as they were, they had many fears; the youngest was afraid of the dark. Throughout her adult life she shared a room with her sister, and slept, they said, with one eye open, just in case.

They used to talk about the First World War, and how brave it was of their uncle Kevin to go off to Australia so soon after his training, not that he had any choice. His faded portrait, sepia with age, was encased in a blackened silver frame on top of the battered old ornamental piano. But it wasn’t the war that killed Father Kevin. It was the ‘flu pandemic that began the year he left All Hallows. His one year in Australia, helping the sick, was such that survivors erected a monument in his honour. My great aunts were so proud. Always so proud.

One by one my great aunts; public servant, insurance broker, and self-declared secret agent, were gradually lost to the past. Back to bomb scares, bread lines, fuel shortages, and rations. So far back that they didn’t recognise anyone from the present any more. They each found a peculiar sort of comfort there, amid the strangeness loitering in the darkest corners. After all their years here and there, they did not see the dawn of the new millennium.

Their home, always stock piled with cans and packets, newspaper, clips, and china tea cups, is home to strangers now. The old cupboards are long gone. All trace of their lives erased. I think of them often, and especially now when I walk at night. We must keep our distance, wear masks, and isolate. The world is a strange place. Somehow, I think they would feel right at home.


    Text ©Éimear O’Connor 2020.           
     Photograph of park entrance, March 2020, © Éimear O’Connor 2020.
Posted in Covid-19, Dublin, fiction, History, Ireland, Journeys in Dublin, Pandemic, short story, Walking | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Journeys in Dublin: Night Streets

In the odd light that only close to midnight knows I am out for a walk, and I look at the the houses along the street. I begin to imagine, just as I do when I’m upstairs on the bus and the curtains are open along the route. There’s the house with the always closed blinds, high deciduous trees, and two cars crammed into the driveway behind a firmly locked gate. There is no letter box in the front door. I know that because the postman delivered a letter to me but addressed to them. Having negotiated the locked front gate in a most undignified manner, I searched in vain for a letter box. Very odd not to have a letterbox anywhere I thought. It is the opposite of seeing things when I can’t see anything. I rang the bell, to no avail. A neighbour told me to leave the letter in the porch; the owners would see it that night. Night duty, I thought to myself, but as if reading my mind the neighbour said that the people in the house slept all day and got up at night. As I pass on my way to collect my books I notice that the house is in darkness. Maybe they’ve slept in.

Then there’s the bungalow on the corner. It is a sad looking house that has been empty for at least twenty years, yet it has never been put up for sale. Every so often someone does a little work to it. A few years ago they insulated the outside. Must have got one of those grants I thought at the time. But they only insulated the front wall which I also thought was odd at the time. Maybe the grant ran out. Double glazing, evening sun at the front, no stairs inside, easily kept garden, and near to all modern conveniences. But still the house remained empty and sad. Walking to collect my books I notice that someone has recently spent a small fortune on granite paving from the pedestrian entrance all the way to the front door, a new hedge around the walls, and several new trees.Great,  I thought, someone is going to move in. But then I notice that a piece of granite has been used to keep the pedestrian gate opposite the front door closed. It is laid up against the inside of the gate.

There’s a new build house for retired people around the corner. It has huge glass windows that catch the south facing sun. It looks like a happy house where retired people are comfortable. As I pass I notice that the curtains are closed in all of the rooms except one upstairs. There is a warm glow from perhaps a bedside light. It casts a warm pink circle on the ceiling. I wonder whether the person in that room had a visitor that day.

A few doors down there’s a house that’s been extended so it looks like two houses. The outside is drab and dreary. The front garden is a black coated car park surrounded by an enormously high hedge, and the building itself is clad in miles of dreary brick – 1970s red brick which is closer to brown than red. But as I pass by I notice through the venetian blinds that there is a red light on the wall in one of the downstairs rooms. It is the sort of light that used to be put in front of holy pictures in guest houses all over Ireland. But that was long ago. Must be a convent, or a priests’ house, although I’ve never seen anyone arriving or leaving in all the time I’ve lived around here.

Then there’s the house with a small grey car outside. I imagine that the house is occupied by a retired person who drives a small grey car. But then I find myself thinking that the person living there is probably twenty and I shouldn’t judge a house or its occupants by the colour and size of the car in the drive.

All along the road is going to sleep, but open curtains here and there create vistas for imagination: a daisy shaped mirror on a mauve bedroom wall; someone reading at a desk by lamplight; purple flowered wall paper; a poodle asleep on a window sill; books piled high on shelves and window sills; teddy bears peering out; people moving about. Outside there are cars, some in driveways, others queued up along the verges. Santa Claus remains in situ on a chimney. Somewhere someone is dragging a bin. Every now and then a dog barks. A young fox slinks across the road. The sound of laughter tinkles in the air. Along the road home I notice that someone has stepped in paint. The white footprints leave the gate, walk down the cul de sac onto the main road, cross the road as far as the traffic island in the middle, and then disappear entirely into the dark of the night.

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Journeys in Dublin

???????????????????????????????I was recently recovering from surgery, a position in life that necessitated frequent perambulations around my neighbourhood. I don’t want to discuss the surgery, and I am absolutely fine now, thank you! With nothing on my mind except trying to keep my stitches in place so that my insides would not fall out, I was free to observe everything and everyone around me in great detail. As much of my recovery took place during the cold months of winter, I frequently found myself outside wrapped up like a sumo wrestler and doing my best to stay upright against the onslaught of ice and snow. Brim full of warmness, there I would be, walking along in my locality, delighted with new discoveries after nearly twenty years in the place. In my delight I might venture to say hello to a passerby. On this particularly cold afternoon I was out and about, thrilled with myself that I was fully intact, not too sore, fed, watered, and about to do my mileage for the day.  Darkness had not yet fallen, and there was a lovely wintery smell in the air –  hearth fires, warm dinners, combined with wet leaves sort of smell. Along the road I observed a figure advancing before me, and I thought to myself to make sure to say hello. To be friendly. To smile. After all, a smile goes a long way. I had been alone all day, and I wanted someone to smile back at me. It took a few minutes for the person to pull up alongside me, but just beforehand I observed a large pair of earphones under her woolly hat. ‘Hello’ I said to no avail. She didn’t even look at me although she was literally a footstep away. She was clearly hell bent on doing her own miles for the day. But I was surprised at her deliberate solitude, eyes straight forward, not even a gaze to right or left. I may as well have been invisible. Maybe she was thinking, or sad, or worried, and didn’t want to engage with the world. So, I thought to myself, I would do a little experiment, and while walking my local park I’d say hello to whoever passed me, because we are a friendly nation. We like to talk to eachother, to reachout. The following day I walked the boundaries of the park opposite my house. It was a little earlier in the day; the winter sun was casting playful rays through the trees and turning their trunks a strange shade of purple in the shade and shadow. I said hello to eight adults that afternoon, all of whom were wearing earphones, and none of whom even made eye contact. ‘No wonder’, I thought to myself ‘that the world is such a lonely place. Earphones have taken the place of conversation’ for some anyway. I wondered whether all of those people to whom I had said hello were thinking, or sad, or worried, and didn’t want to engage with the world. Wouldn’t a brief ‘hello’, or even an eye smile with a stranger have helped?

The photograph above was taken by myself on St Mark’s Place in New York City in the summer of 2013.

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Lady Aberdeen

Its been a very busy start to 2017! I’ve completed two chapters, one for a forthcoming book on Irish artist, Harry Clarke, and the other for a forthcoming book on the Throne Room in Dublin Castle!

Lady Aberdeen was the subject of my research for the Throne Room chapter,  which took me to the little village of Tarves in Aberdeenshire, and on to Haddo House, the family seat of the various Lords of Aberdeen. The photograph shows the village of Tarves on the night of the special moon in late February, 2017. The building on the right is the Aberdeen Arms Hotel, and the window on the top left is the room in which I stayed.  The moon is real! tarves

Lady Ishbel Aberdeen was an extraordinary woman, a supporter of Home Rule, and a founder of the Irish Industries Association in Ireland in 1886.  I’m giving a public lunch time lecture on aspects of her work in Ireland, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, for the Friends of the Crawford Art Gallery, Cork, on 22 March, 2017. With the permission of the present Lord Aberdeen, the lecture will be fully illustrated using photographs taken during my research visit to the Haddo Estate. Watch out too for the forthcoming book on the Throne Room in Dublin Castle. Published by Irish Academic Press, and edited by Dr Myles Campbell and William Derham of the OPW, with contributions from many writers doing fascinating research, the book promises to be very exciting indeed. It will be published in autumn, 2017.


Posted in Chicago World's Fair 1893, Dublin, History, Ireland, Irish art, Irish diaspora, Lady Aberdeen, Research journeys | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Mining the Image’, a short film featuring artist print maker, Margaret Irwin West.

Margaret Irwin West lives and works in Claddaghduff, Connemara, County Galway. Well-known to the art community in Galway and Dublin, Irwin West taught art in Dunlaoghaire, and in NCAD, Dublin, for many years. She has spent a lifetime teaching, making great work, and contributing in any way possible to the arts in Ireland through active involvement on voluntary boards and arts festivals . ‘Mo’, as she is known to her friends, has exhibited all over Ireland, in France, and in many other places around the world, but has never, until recently, had a full-scale solo exhibition in Dublin. Irwin West’s retrospective, ‘Mining the Image’, curated by myself, has opened in the Leinster Gallery, South Frederick Street, Dublin 2, 13-25 April, 2015. The film was made to illustrate the etching process, and is on view as part of the exhibition. ‘Mining the Image’ was filmed, directed, and produced by Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA. Edited by Tom Rowley.

Margaret Irwin West photographed on Omey Island by Dr Éimear O'Connor HRHA (copyright reserved)

Margaret Irwin West photographed on Omey Island by Dr Éimear O’Connor HRHA (copyright reservedprocess, and is on view at the exhibition.

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Journeys in New York – Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation

Many of my friends and colleagues in New York, elsewhere in America, in England, France, Germany, and in Ireland, have asked for information about my recent book on Irish artist, Seán Keating.

The book is titled Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation. It is published in full colour by Irish Academic Press (Sallins, County Kildare) and is available in paperback in bookshops all over Ireland, and on and
isbn 978-07165-3193-7 (paper)

Kenny’s bookshop in Galway and Hodges Figgis in Dublin may still have a few copies of the hard back, signed limited edition in stock.
isbn 978-07165-3161-6 (limited edition cloth)
isbn 978-07165-3197-5 (limited edition slipcase)

Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation was recently reviewed by Peter Murray, Director of the Crawford Art Gallery Cork:

Full colour publication of Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation was sponsored by ESB, and the book was designed by Sinéad McKenna at

The photograph above shows the book displayed in the window of Hodges Figgis Bookshop, Dawson Street, Dublin, to celebrate the Irish launch, which was held in the RHA, Ely Place, Dublin, on 25 April 2013. Images of Keating paintings, Men of the West (first exhibited 1917) and Men of the South (1921-22), seen in left and right of the window display, were reproduced courtesy of the Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane and the Crawford Art Gallery Cork respectively, and with permission from The Keating Estate. The photograph was taken by myself at about 6.30 in the morning. I managed to get the shot by standing in the middle of the road – which is not something one could possibly do after 7am – it is one of the busiest roads in the city!

The book should appeal to everybody (the general public, academics, collectors, second and third level students, art auction houses etc.) with an interest in Irish art history, Irish history, and Irish Studies.

I hope this information is helpful, and thank you for your interest in my work.
I’d be delighted, and encouraged, if you’d keep reading, following and sharing my blog.

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Journeys in New York – Summer in the City of Welcomes

So, there came a point when I decided to spend a summer in New York. It was not going to be a holiday. I had a detailed plan of research for my next book. The whole project involved a lot of saving, serious organization, and making sure that I had somewhere to stay. That all worked out, flights were booked, and on the morning of 4 June 2013 I was amazed to find myself at Dublin airport with a large bag, a computer, absolutely no idea whether I’d meet new friends, but quite prepared to face whatever my journey in New York was going to throw at me. I’d never spent three months away from my home before; too many responsibilities for so many years. I was really looking forward to the prospect. I landed in John F. Kennedy airport, found my bag on a carousel that had a peculiar life of its own, and took a taxi to the East Village, my home for the duration of my stay.

The next thing was the launch of my book, Seán Keating: Art, Politics and Building the Irish Nation, which happened in the Residence of the Irish Consul in New York on 12 June. That was a fantastic night – my father flew to New York to attend, as did my publisher, Conor Graham, from Irish Academic Press, and the esteemed historian, Kevin Cahill, did me the great honour of launching the book. The entire evening took place 53 floors up in the air, and amid one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen. Keating, who visited New York in 1930 and again in 1939, would have loved it! I didn’t realise it at the time, but I met many people who were to become very good friends at that book launch. Those friendships matured over the ensuing weeks and months, and will, I feel sure, last a lifetime.

After the excitement of the book launch, I saw my father and Conor off in taxis, and then, it was down to the business of researching for the new book. Alone in New York, I knew what I had to do, and I was fully aware that it was going to be a major research project involving archives in institutions all over the city and beyond, and in private collections in the city and beyond. Ultimately, of the eleven weeks in New York, ten of those were spent researching – and I mean morning, noon and night – to get to the level of detail that I required for the project.

One of the first things that I did on arrival to the city was to take myself to New York Public Library where I did a brief interview with a wonderful person who oversees the writers’ rooms. I explained my project, and must have passed muster; I was given a key card to the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room where I had my own desk, shelves and access to whatever material I needed. My own desk in New York Public Library – a researcher’s dream! I spent many, many hours in the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room. Indeed, on several occasions, myself, and a fellow writer in the room, were the last members of the general public in the building. I will treasure that image – being one of the last in the building. There is something wonderful about seeing what goes on behind the scenes, however brief the view might be, when major institutions close their doors to the public for the night. My imagination ran away with me on those occasions. Perhaps, I’d be thinking, the ghost of some frustrated writer stalks the corridors, and if we could hang about a little longer, we might see it/him/her?

The image of closing time at the library reminded me that I was one of the last people allowed into the Orangerie in Paris in 2000, just before it was closed for renovation. That was an amazing experience – me, my friend, and the two security guards, standing alone with our thoughts in front of some of the most amazing work by Monet that I had ever seen. While in the Orangerie, and faced with closing time, I found myself imagining Monet standing there, nodding his head in approval, and making an appointment to return for the re-opening.

So what will I remember most about my stay in New York during the summer of 2013? I’ll remember the people that I met; their kindness, their generosity, and their warmth. I’ll remember the Mosaic Man – who turned the lamp posts of the East Village into intricate works of art. I’ll never forget The Cell Theatre and all of those involved with it. I’ll remember the awe I felt in Columbia University, in New York Public Library, and in several other libraries and archives that I had the honour and privilege to visit. I’ll forever recall the emotion that I felt when I visited Flushing Meadow to try to ‘trace’ where the two Irish pavilions had been during the World’s Fair in 1939-40. I’ll remember the kindness of several archivists, in many institutions, who took a personal interest in my work, and who all did their utmost to help me in my quest. My theatre experience was an emotional journey – I’ll certainly remember ‘The Nance’ for the complex stories about human life that it illustrated. Most of all, I’ll remember the friendships that were forged among artists, writers, musicians, journalists, photographers, bloggers, historians, families, and so many other people who, for the purposes of privacy, shall remain nameless, but who know who they are.

Dublin beckons, and the journey towards the new book will continue – so will the blog about that journey. In the meantime, I have a final thought to share; one that says so much about New York, and about the people and my journey through the summer of 2013. When I had completed my interview for a place in the Shoichi Noma Writer’s Room in New York Public Library, I was handed the key card, and I couldn’t believe my luck. Imagine, I thought to myself – me, researching in New York Public Library – in New York, the city of dreams! The man who oversees the writer’s rooms smiled at me. Perhaps he could read my thoughts. “Welcome to New York Public Library” he said – and I never felt so welcome in another city in my entire life.

Posted in Dublin, Irish diaspora, Journeys in New York, New York, New York Public Library, New York World's Fair 1939, Seán Keating, Theatre, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Journeys in New York – Flushing Meadows to Broadway – Hi, simply Hi

What a week it was! Artists Without Walls is an exhilarating experience for anyone interested in the arts, whether a spectator or a practitioner, or indeed, both. The group get together once a month at the Cell Theatre, West 23rd Street, NYC, not too far from the famous Chelsea Hotel. You’ll find poets, actors, writers, singers, musicians, orators, dancers, and once in a while, you may even meet an art historian! The atmosphere is electric; it encourages creativity, imagination, and very importantly, friendship and discussion between like minds amongst the audience and the performers. Everybody is welcome at Artist’s Without Walls. Their next gig is on 27 August – check it out:

As it happened, that same week I had been researching in New York Public Library about Ireland’s participation in the New York World’s Fair in 1939, the theme of which was ‘The World of Tomorrow’. It was all about modernity, engineering, technology, science, and the arts – a vision of the future and hope amid the tail end of the economic depression. The New York World’s Fair took place on Flushing Meadows in Queens. A former rubbish tip that was drained and cleared for the occasion, the site was a metaphor for everything the organisers wanted to change and modernise at that time. It is now a well-known public park, usually called Flushing Meadows Corona Park, and famous for its sporting facilities, the New York Hall of Science gallery, a botanical garden, the Queens Theatre in the park, a zoo and many other facilities:

In the year or so leading up to the opening of the New York World’s Fair, Flushing Meadows was landscaped and divided into sites on which enormous pavilions were built, each designed in a sharp modernist style and decorated by some of the best-known artists of the era. Among the attractions were huge water features, sculptures, theatres, cinemas, restaurants, car show rooms, a blimp landing pad, and the famous Trylon and Perishere buildings that featured on posters and advertisements. Many nations were represented at the event, and encouraged by a mesmerized press, millions of people visited the World’s Fair in 1939 and 1940. The site was clean, well-engineered and well-organized – a homage to modernity in the face of World War Two.

I’m always interested in the reality of historical situations, and anxious to find out more of the social history of the times, I read EL Doctorow’s book about growing up in New York, in which he portrays the atmosphere of excitement of the event as seen through the eyes of a young man. It is a great read for anyone interested in the history of the topic, and the effect of the Fair on the people who visited.

The week of intense research came to an end with a treat (always necessary when working hard!). A friend organized tickets for Broadway, and on Friday night we were sitting in the lovely old Lyceum Theatre (built in 1903) waiting for The Nance to begin.

Starring Nathan Lane as Chauncey Miles, The Nance is ‘set in the twilight of burlesque’ in 1937 New York (New York Times). It was important to Chauncey Miles that he always wore a dapper suit, tie, and top hat for his performance. His burlesque depended on humour, a wealth of facial expressions, and a little wave of his right hand accompanied with the bye-line “Hi, simply hi”.

But the play is set in 1937, and it soon becomes clear that the authorities were out to clean up Manhattan before the world’s press and millions of visitors arrived to marvel at the New York World’s Fair in 1939. The clean up led to the closure of male, or rather, ‘men in suits’ burlesque theatre. As his career, and ultimately, his life, collapses around him, the final scene is heartbreaking.

After numerous police raids, and the eventual closure of the theatre where he’d played the role of The Nance for many years, the only way that Chauncey Miles could get work was to dress as a woman. Officialdom didn’t mind that because he was ‘in character’, but for Chauncey, it was a humiliating end to a long career in show business. Standing, spot lit, to the side of a lamp post, and dressed in an expensive but well-worn satin ensemble, The Nance had become a burlesque parody of himself, and of modernity too. There is a moment when he drops the mask, and begins to cry in anguish, grieving for his lost private life, for his loss of stage identity, for his lost love, and for a life that will never be the same again. The World of Tomorrow that was going to encompass all things new, had no use for the reality of life for Chauncey Miles, and many more like him. Nothing new there. History is littered with new beginnings that forgot the old, the lost, the poor, the out of work, and the lonely. Several of Édouard Manet’s paintings of Paris illustrate the point.

There is something symbolic and sad about a ‘dark’ stage, where old ghosts still roam, and where there is little by way of illumination to aid empathy and understanding. But as Leonard Cohen says ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’. Outside, on Times Square that Friday night, there was lots of light, and there were people everywhere. We were all enjoying the carnival atmosphere. It took a few minutes to adjust – and then I remembered – it is the twenty-first century and everyone is welcome, right?

“Hi, simply hi!”

Posted in History, Irish diaspora, Journeys in New York, New York, New York Public Library, New York World's Fair 1939, Theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Journeys in New York – Charles Dickens and the Ghosts of Times Past

I had good reason, for the purposes of research, to apply for access to the Berg Collection of English and American Literature at New York Public Library. I arrived on the designated morning with library card, passport, laptop, and a bundle of research notes in a plastic ‘research’ bag. Having set up at my desk, and plugged in the laptop (with the very kind assistance of the librarian on duty who lent me an extension lead), I settled in to what was going to be an extraordinary journey through all sorts of rare and special material. It is a fabulous and exceptional resource, which was put together by brothers, Dr Albert and Dr Henry Berg (donated in 1940). I felt truly honoured to be sitting in the room:

While I was waiting for my requested material, on George Russell (AE) as it happens, I had a few minutes to have a look around. Amazed at the wood-lined shelves and rare volumes, it took a few moments before I noticed the desk. Angled into a corner at the back of the room, with a wicker chair in front, and a glass-globed lamp on top which illuminated an old and well-used calendar, the desk seemed to command attention. A small label revealed an extraordinary provenance, and in doing so, unleashed a series of childhood memories that I had all but forgotten. The furniture had once belonged to Charles Dickens. I admit to performing a little bow in homage to an author who was so important to English literature, and, indeed, to my own times past. The librarian, well-versed in the prominence and significance of Dickens within the Berg Collection, readily agreed with my tribute.

The chair appeared to have been recently vacated, as if Dickens just popped out to get a book, or to find something in the Berg Collection. Much of the material in the collection pertains to him – perhaps he was looking for something? Or maybe, as I let my imagination run riot for a moment, it was 1858 in that corner of the Berg, and Dickens left his room in a hurry to take his trip to Ireland:

The possibilities were endless as I sat imagining a seated shape in the vacant seat where Dickens should have been. Was his spirit still attached to his well-worn work space, like the ghost of Archbishop Marsh, who is said to roam the aisles of Marsh’s Library in Dublin?

I began to wonder – if Dickens were alive today, what would he say to Seamus Heaney, Paula Meehan, President Michael D. Higgins or to Edna O’Brien? Would he approve of e-books? Might he visit the Listowel Writers’ Festival? Did he like the various film versions of Oliver Twist?

I was immediately transported back, via my imagined ghost of Dickens, to my own times past. We had a lovely old library in St Thomas’s building at Sion Hill Convent, Blackrock, County Dublin, where I spent my senior years at school. Lined floor to ceiling with solid wooden bookcases that sat on a Victorian tiled floor, the library was overseen by a charming and very aged Dominican nun, Sister John, whose face was as crinkled as ancient parchment. We loved her; she made us believe that contentment was to be found in a good book (if not in prayer!). She was aided and abetted in this task by Miss Corr, our English teacher, who was just as enthusiastic about literature and the importance of reading. Miss Corr had a favourite expression – “A bored person is very boring” – and of course, we never wanted to be bored or boring. So we spent a lot of time in that library, happily wondering through rare and highly prized volumes, many of them leather-bound with extravagantly decorative labels denoting a previous owner. We made up stories about previous owners becoming nuns, then running away from the convent to get married – the innocence of it all! Yet, we were building strong foundations to support our individual creativity, as we all set out on our journey through life.

I had forgotten, until that day in the Berg Collection, that our little library in Sion Hill had a very particular and familiar smell – ancient leather, ageing paper and wax floor polish. I had forgotten about Sister John and Miss Corr. Vivid images of books returned – gorgeous leather-bound and gold-leafed little art pieces that I was allowed to ‘sign out’ and read on a weekly basis: The Pickwick Papers was among my favourites. Meanwhile, along with books by Dickens and the Bronte sisters, the black and white adaptation of Oliver Twist, and the ever-present Christmas Carol, provided some solid ground in the maelstrom of childhood.

That morning, as I sat in the Berg Collection, researching for books that I never dreamed I’d write, and thinking about Charles Dickens and the old library at school, I was handed a beautiful blue leather-bound volume, with gold-leaf on the cover. The book was not written by Dickens, but by George Russell (AE). I looked over at the desk and chair in the corner, and I thought to myself that things do come full circle. Visit the Berg Collection if you ever have the opportunity. You’ll need an appointment, and a reason to be there. But you never know who you might meet!

Dedicated to the memory of Sister John O.P. and Miss Patricia Corr.

Posted in Charles Dickens, History, Irish art, Irish diaspora, Journeys in New York, New York | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Journeys in New York – four days on the road

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Posted in History, Irish art, Irish diaspora, Journeys in New York, New York, Power O'Malley, Seán Keating | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment