The place of entertainment that I liked best at one stage of my childhood was the old churchyard in Drumcondra. It was a cheerful leafy place where the birds never stopped singing and where there was a deep well, surrounded by rose bushes, which you approached by descending three or four mossy steps. An old zinc watering can was always left at the bottom of the steps for the use of mourners and, when you had finished tidying the family grave, that watering can was always left back. Like the steps, it too was partly clothed in moss and likewise the old jugs that stood around it.
James Gandon, English-born architect of the Custom House and other city masterpieces, is buried there but this was not the reason for our frequent visits. If you stood with your back to the door of the neat small church belonging to the Church of Ireland, the exceedingly tidy graves with imposing headstones to your right belonged to Protestants, and those on your left to certain Roman Catholics. My maternal grandparents, by ancient residential rights, were among those permitted to be buried on the left-hand side. They lay beneath a yew tree and a small marble headstone which had to be scraped white again after the winter rains. Their engraved names were cleaned with a toothpick or a nailfile: Frank was quite easy, but Margaret could be tricky.
This, however, was not my job. My job was to fetch water from the old well, a place I really loved. Shady, green and mysterious, its mossy steps could be cold on sandalled feet in summer, but on hot days I liked to kneel down and splash my face with water which I always believed must be green. It disappointed me to find that every drop had dried out clear and clean when I inspected my face in the mirror at home later. You sometimes heard and even saw a robin among the straggle of rose bushes that surrounded the well and it was tempting to linger in that cool place, among the rusty jugs and the watering can and the large wire litter baskets into which you threw the previous week’s flowers – that was part of my job too.
Often on a hot day, I would eke out the job and by the time I got back, with my cotton dress soaking wet, my mother would be deep in conversation with an old man who kept the most extraordinary grave in Drumcondra. It was about four graves wide and there was no headstone. Instead, there were four white-painted wooden posts with white chains hanging between them, and a few wooden crosses bearing family names which the old man often repainted in black. Between these crosses and separating them was a maze of tiny box hedges. I clearly remembered the grave when years later I saw an Elizabethan knot garden in Hampton Court.
Of course the old man in Drumcondra had made a much more ornate horizontal garden of his family plot. Inside the tiny box squares were all sorts of things – little bridges of seashells, a pair of white clasped hands, infant angels kneeling with bowed heads, small sprays of immortelles, and many horizontal crosses, as well as the vertical ones. He had taken care to plant only small seasonal flowers inside his box hedges, so that nothing was ever out of proportion. There were forget-me-nots, crocuses, pansies, dwarf irises, grape hyacinths and primroses right through the summer.
The labour was obviously considerable. Whenever we went, he was always there, weeding, deadheading, watering or planting. Presumably his family, all dead, had been a source of company to him in life and in death had become the same. He and my mother got on very well, exchanging pleasantries about the weather as they worked but also, now and again, fragments of their respective family histories. He told her about his red-haired sister Alice who had caught a cold at Parnell’s funeral in 1891 and died soon afterwards of pneumonia, and she told him about her sister, who was frequently missing during school holidays when the family sat down to midday dinner. ‘Go and look across the road in the churchyard,’ my grandfather would say grimly, and right here sure enough Nora would be found, with a black ribbon around her straw hat, crying her eyes out at some stranger’s funeral and being comforted by unknown people who gave her chocolate and took her to be a distant cousin – one of themselves, anyhow.
I remember the old man’s hearty laugh ringing out over the murmuring of the students at their Divine Office behind the wall of All Hallows College, and I also remember the day the old man wasn’t there any more. Three weeks in a row he wasn’t there, and then one day we found his masterpiece of a memorial garden tumbled and ruined, a new grave having been dug among the miniatures, and the earth tossed back roughly. There obviously wasn’t anyone to beautify his grave and so gradually the box hedges grew over it, making a pretty enough mound of miniature green leaves.
Frank and Margaret O’Neill, my maternal grandparents, were more fortunate in the matter of grave maintenance. They had, apart from my mother, five other living children who were the product of a rather odd mixed marriage – and a very romantic one in fact. She was a Protestant, a Miss Healy, who belonged to a business family in Dame Street. Margaret had cousins in New York whom she kept begging her parents to visit. When she finished boarding school at seventeen, they arranged a travelling companion for her, a trustworthy young fellow of twenty, who happened to be Roman Catholic but who had already been across the Atlantic. His father was among the dispatch staff in Dame Street and it so happened that young Frank was planning to emigrate to better himself, as the saying went. Frank and Margaret got on very well in the course of the voyage to New York and he regaled her with funny stories of his life as a copy boy for The Freeman’s Journal. He had hopes of doing better in the New World, he told her. By the time the ship berthed in New York harbour, they had fallen in love and Margaret didn’t see home again for five years. By that time she and Frank were married and he was working as a junior reporter for the New York Herald Tribune. I could never work out why they came back home to Dublin, but they arrived in time for the birth of their first child, and shortly afterwards Frank O’Neill got a job on The Freeman’s Journal as a staff reporter.
All I remember about Margaret is her voice, and the place where she used to hide a paper bag of bulls’ eyes or dolly mixture for me (under the cushion of her rocking chair) in the front parlour of their home in Drumcondra. She died when I was three in 1928, but my grandfather Frank lived on for five more years. He was a short, rather breathless little man with a brick red face, a fiery moustache and very bright, very challenging blue eyes under his bowler hat. He was mad about cars and owned a Model T Ford in which he often took us to Sutton for summer picnics or to Glendalough when the leaves began to drift down on the lakes. He had the sort of death I think he would have chosen for himself. He was trying to crank up an even older car one day in his coach house out at the back, and (in the opinion of my father) she had probably kicked harder than he had expected. He was thrown backwards and died of a heart attack. But the point is, my father always said, that all he would have been aware of is that he did succeed in starting up the old engine again. So he must have died in triumph, aged almost eighty.
There was a sound friendship between my father, Jimmy Mulkerns, and that old man. It was said (although not by her sisters) that Esther, my mother, was his favourite daughter and it must have been a wry satisfaction to him that she brought in the right sort of son-in-law, a lively cultured young patriot who was a voracious reader. His family was working-class, but he had had the gumption to educate himself after leaving school at the age of fourteen. As a young railwayman, he had saved up to take elocution lessons from the Abbey actor Frank Fay and had succeeded so well that W.B. Yeats had chosen him to play Michael in one of the early productions of The Land of Heart’s Desire. He had actually been invited to tea in Drumcondra Road by one of the older O’Neill girls, but had fallen in love with her little sister. By that time Jimmy Mulkerns was heavily involved in the National Movement and was impressed by the ‘safe house’ status of the Drumcondra house. The boys of that family were not politically minded, but they were accustomed now and again to bring home friends on the run from the Black and Tans for a meal and a night’s rest – former schoolfellows, some of them, like Mike Hoolihan.
The story I like best – a story I heard as a child when I sat down on the stairs to listen one night on my way up to bed – is about the same Mike Hoolihan. He came in, exhausted, with my Uncle Frank O’Neill one evening and threw himself down on the hard horsehair sofa in the back parlour after hanging up his coat in the hall. Unable to stay awake long enough for the sandwiches, which my mother had been dispatched to make for him down in the kitchen, he lay as one dead in the back parlour with his shock of black hair flopped over his face and one leg dangling to the floor. The arrival of my mother with a tray of sandwiches coincided with a thunderous series of bangs at the door and shouted threats that it would be broken down if it wasn’t opened at once.
By the time four or five Black and Tans had stormed in, young Esther had spread the voluminous makings of new Easter curtains over the sleeping Mike and was busy with a pair of scissors and a measuring tape preparing to cut the cloth. She disarmed the Black and Tans with a smile and an offer of the sandwiches which she said she had just made for her father who was due home soon from his night shift at the Freeman’s Journal. The thugs snatched a sandwich each before making a charge upstairs to search the rest of the house. The climax of the story came after the raiders had left. They had not only missed Mike Hoolihan under the curtains but they had also missed Mike Hoolihan’s greatcoat hanging up on the hallstand, and they had missed his revolver bulging from one pocket! The loud guffaws of my uncles were such, my mother always said, as almost to bring the raiders back again, but by then they were probably roaring off across Drumcondra Bridge bound for The Cat and Cage, where perhaps some of The Boys could be found over a peaceful pint.
The Boys? It was never necessary to explain what boys. This was the very early nineteen twenties, towards the end of the War of Independence, near enough to the romantic dream of Easter 1916 in which my father had played his part. He was not like some of the Volunteers, too young at the time to know what he was doing. He was already well into his thirties and had a job on the Midland and Great Western Railway. More important to him, he was beginning to be known as a balladeer and had a little volume called Songs of Freedom published by the Music Depot in Mary Street. More important still, I think, to him: he was beginning to get walk-on parts in the Abbey Theatre. He had, in fact, something to lose, and he lost it.
But he gained the passionate attachment of Essie O’Neill which did indeed last until death did them part. Hers. In order to make marriage with Esther possible, he gave up his artistic ambitions and took a sensible job as a salesman in the General Electric Company, Trinity Street, with a salary just about big enough to rent them a flat in Grove Park, Rathmines, which provided me with ducks to feed as a small child in the nearby curve of the Grand Canal known as Portobello Harbour.
I was fascinated to learn not long ago that, even as a man of business, Jimmy Mulkerns did not detach himself from the Movement, but was of valuable service to Michael Collins in 13 Trinity Street. My father was a man who knew how to hold his tongue where necessary, despite his passion for storytelling. But as an old man close to death, he told the Collins story to his elder son, my brother Jim, who told it to his daughter Helena. She was working as a freelance journalist in New York and she wrote it up for the 1997 St Patrick’s week edition of The Irish Echo, which is how it came to me. I did know that both my parents were Pro-Treaty and bitterly resentful of Eamon de Valera for having stood back from his instruction to Collins to ‘make the best terms you can, Mick’ and to have caused the Civil War after Collins had done just that. Both parents believed that Collins had been disgracefully betrayed and later murdered.