Nancy in Eire

‘Ireland has changed its name to Eire and its charming people, whose qualities of heart and mind were so cruelly misused for so many centuries, are busily making a nation, but it is still the Emerald Isle of nineteenth-century literature, exaggeratedly itself,’ Nancy wrote of Ireland in The Water Beetle, a small book described as a ‘salad of well seasoned essays’. After the austerity of war-time Britain, Ireland was a demi-paradise for Nancy and her sisters; there was no rationing, and the rich – such as Pam and Derek Jackson – could set up residency to avoid the super taxation of Attlee’s Labour Government.

Every spring, Nancy boarded the Aer Lingus Friend Ship plane at Le Bourget destined for Ireland. She praised its customer service in an age when travelling by aeroplane was becoming commercial and the rule of the day was ‘don’t spoil the passengers’. However, the Friend Ship, to Nancy’s delight, aimed to please. There was a delicious luncheon of hot soup, fresh salmon and hot coffee, after which the passengers settled down to enjoy the headlines of The Irish Times and The Cork Examiner: ‘Dublin Nun Found Dead in Drain’, ‘Priest Hurt in Collison with Cart’.

Before setting off to visit her various friends and family, Nancy would spend an hour or two in Dublin before catching a train. She thought the city a ‘prim little eighteenth-century town, sometimes compared to Bath, though this is doing it too much honour; and unspoilt’. The stopover offered enough time for Nancy to write her name in tin for a penny and weigh herself for another. The May wind, breezing across the Irish Sea, was bitter, but Nancy, always appropriately dressed for the occasion, smugly observed the American tourists shivering in their plastic cloaks. The train itself was an omnibus, with the passengers made up of nuns and farmers, who talk like an Abbey Theatre play. ‘I’ve had another anonymous letter from Dooley O’Sullivan.’

It amused Nancy that every village and small town seemed to have a luggage shop, for she wrote: ‘People leave Eire as they have always left Ireland, at an enormous rate.’ The country roads were empty, although the occasional Rolls Royce with American tourists buried in white satin luggage came lumbering down the road, and the cottage dogs, so unused to motor traffic, dived at passing cars. The shops in rural villages were a dream for Nancy, who relished the fact they had no modern boutiques, and she bought a year’s worth of cotton dresses and nylons. Medical Hall sold French cosmetics and scent, so naturally that was heaven on earth for her. She noticed an exciting new sign advertising ‘Modern Hairstyling’, and learned of two young ladies, trained in New York, who washed hair backwards. The young ladies, however, seemed to have lost their transatlantic hustle, and although it was half past eleven when Nancy rang the doorbell for an appointment, the receptionist was still in her dressing gown.

In spite of the stirrings of progression, Nancy could not ignore the old fashioned quality of Eire. ‘There is not much fraternization with Protestants,’ she wrote. When she asked her hostess what would happen if a priest was invited to dinner, she was informed he would have to move to another parish. A Pagan element, too, intrigued her, and she wondered if the rags on trees were being tied to commemorate the saints or the Little People. She inquired about the leprechauns, but nobody seemed to want to talk about them, except for an inn-keeper, who confided to her, ‘I saw a sow where never a sow there was.’

‘Eire does not live with the times,’ she concluded. And, by her own reasoning, she realised English historians had no notion of the country, and could only represent a strange flock of people living on a fairy-like island. ‘This is not good enough,’ she warned, and she hoped a young genius would begin a great History of Ireland.


The above was detailed in Nancy’s essay ‘The Other Island’, published in The Water Beetle.


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