Tuesday, 30 June 2015
First there was the Galway chair. There was a family story that it was made as a wedding present. I don't if that's true. I know that it once stood in my grandfather's home in Galway, in a room above his barber's shop in Eyre Square. I know that, when the shop was sold after his death, it came to Dublin with my grandmother, a charming, angry woman, who took to her bed on arrival and stayed there, in a temper, till she died.
I know that when I was born, my father shortened the legs so my mother could use it as a nursing chair.
I remember kneeling in front of it when I was five, playing house; I put a pastry board across the arms as a roof, and tucked my teddy to sleep on the seat.
When my mother died it went from our house in Dublin to my brother's house in Enniscorthy. On the twenty fifth anniversary of my own wedding I asked him if I could have it as an anniversary present and it crossed the the country again, from Wexford to Corca Dhuibhne
As I worked down through the layers of paint that had accumulated on it, the memories blurred and refocused. The top layer was white. That was put on by my brother after my mother's death. Beneath it, was a layer of Wedgewood blue. That went on when my father died. I remember my mother, alone in the home they had made together, afraid that even to change the colour of a chair was somehow to betray his memory.
Underneath the top layers a creamy undercoat clung to the spindles and the seat, and needed digging out of the legs. I worked on it for months, revealing the knots and scratches, the marks of other, older tools, and the colours and grains of the different woods chosen by the man who made it. Beneath it I found the initials of his name.
Under the steady, repeated gestures of chipping and sanding, turning and dusting, my mind played with ideas for a new book. That was two years ago. Now the book is written and the Galway chair has been joined by the Dublin table.
It was made by a man who worked as a joiner in Ireland's National Museum. There's a family story that he used offcuts of timber from a display case. My father, who also worked in the museum, had responsibility for its Military History and War of Independence collections. The table was built for him to write on, though I never remember him working at it. I don't think it would have been big enough for his manuscripts and books.
At different times it stood against different walls in our Dublin house. I remember rubbing Ronuk Polish into its mahogany surface and buffing it with a pad made from a worn cotton sheet. There was a pewter bowl of oranges that always stood on it at Christmas time. My mother guarded the table top carefully against heat marks, scratches and stains. When she died it went to my sister's house. When my sister died and that house was sold, her husband offered it to me.
Yesterday Wilf and I drove from Dublin to Corca Dhuibhne with the table in the back of the car. The day before that we had been in Enniscorthy, talking about the book, which I've just finished editing. It's called A Woven Silence: Memory, History & Remembrance and it maps my own family's stories onto the history of the Irish State, seeking and exploring blurred communal memories and the reasons why they were lost.
The cover shows a photo of my mother and her sisters taken in Dublin about 1915, when their father's cousin was in the British Army, fighting in Flanders, and their mother's cousin was drilling in the fields outside Enniscorthy with Cumann na mBan. In my mother's clenched hand is a coin. The memory of its story would have been lost forever had she chosen not to pass it on.
As I reached the last chapter, I told my publisher that I couldn't finish writing the book till the marriage referendum was over. It ends with Pantibliss on the stage of the Abbey Theatre, crowds singing in the yard of Dublin Castle, and three faceless stones on an Enniscorthy hill.
Yesterday Wilf unscrewed the table top, so we could fit it into the car. Sixty years earlier, a man whose name I don't know fitted those ten screws, each an inch and a quarter long, into place, and fastened the top to the base. They came out easily when Wilf turned the screwdriver, having been put in with no more pressure than was required to do the job right.
We carried the Dublin table into the house in Corca Dhuibhne in two pieces and reassembled it on the floor. Now it stands here beside the Galway chair. I don't know what will happen next to either of them.
A Woven Silence: Memory, & Remembrance will be published by The Collins Press in September 2015