By Sally McEllistrim
I wonder if their ghosts come to visit? On wild, wet and windy days in Barrow, in the Kerry Parish of Ardfert, do the Slatterys, Harmons and O’Connells feel the need of the warmth of their old house and its black range, and come in and rest awhile.
I wonder if they pop into the old haggard where the Hollyhock stood tall and proud, rather like the dwellers themselves.
Do they sit and wonder at the little steam at the bottom of the gate or gaze at the bay and mountains that are the unchanged landscape they would have always enjoyed?
On shimmering hot summer days do they miss Poul Gorm, or take shade under Crosty, the rock that has stood over generations of locals for aeons or ramble around the Warren, the local names for the expanse of sea and strand that hugs the stunning coastline.
Do they, on balmy summer evenings walk back to Fenit or Ballyheighue, cycle to Ardfert or pick blackberries from the roadside hedges of their beloved Barrow.
It was after all, the centre of their lives. The ‘old house’ as it is still known was the epicentre.
As a child I wasn’t mad about the house; it had loads of trees; oak and ash and sycamore which almost formed a curtain around it and coupled with its situation, in from the road, lent it an almost eerie feeling. In winter those trees shook, waved and whistled in the wind. However, I loved the apple trees in the orchard. Grandma was generous. She took great care not to allow me eat the ‘sour’ apples, fearful they would make me sick.
I loved her stewed apple jam, spread thickly on fresh white batch bread and try as I might, can never recreate anything to match hers.
In Spring, the trees were lush and verdant and full of promise.
The daffodils stretched in rows in from the gate into the house and my love for them endures to this day. Daffodils, to me, have no pretention. They are beautiful, they remind me of a young foal, haughty yet simple. Majestic in their simplicity.
Barrow too is majestic. I adore the place, always have done. Ever since I was a child growing up there it cast its spell on me, it’s an ethereal place.
As a child I loved when the tide was in, across the road, cutting us off and cutting off those who couldn’t grapple with the water.
Crosty is almost a symbol of their dead generations; strong, stoic and with a long shadow. Their likes will truly never be seen again. My family had a respect for, and appreciation of those that walked before them, and as a result their relations were given life by being recalled and remembered.
Even though I didn’t meet so many of them, I feel as if I did. And so I wonder if Catherine O’Connell Harmon, my great grandmother, visits the ruin of the old national school at Chapeltown where she taught.
Family lore had it that she was shot at by the Black and Tans en route from her home in Barrow back to Chapletown as she made her way on her pony and trap; Thankfully they missed.
Does my beloved Grandmother, Sarah Harmon (Slattery) pop in to see how the old stone cut Barrow National School, where she was one of two teachers, has been restored. She was a lover of learning and sharing that learning.
My family loved reading. Books were a currency they loved, exchanged and fought over! I never knew a family that could fall out over books but mine did!
The famous Writer Brinsley McNamara, famous for his searing polemic on Irish life in the 50s, was a family friend; indeed my Grand Aunt Mary, later Sr. Enda, ‘walked out’ with him to use the parlance of the day. She took off though to join her three Sisters at the Convent in Leavenworth in Kansas.
Famed for her beauty and brains she became a Pharmacist while the other three were teachers and writers. Their other Sister, Auntie Annie, whom I never met, was the one who stayed at home and was legendary both for her warmth, sense of fun and huge generosity.
Apparently she won the Sweep (a share!!) and spent it all on her family, both in Barrow and America.
I still have the trunk she brought back from her travels. Their only brother, John, was a Jesuit who was handsome and known as the ‘Star of Mungret’, such was his grasp of difficult equations and mathematics.
Back to Brinsley and Mary, (Sr Enda); years later she is said to have visited Brinsley at his home in one of Dublin’s grand squares. My wonderful Aunt Kathleen, no slouch when it came to drama, often recalled that Brinsley, a tall and imposing figure stood at the top of his sweeping stairs and declared, “Mary, Mary, you came back!”. However, of course, Mary, Sr. Enda, was not staying, she was just paying a courtesy visit to her dear friend.
While their courtship was short, it was often spoken about in my family who were happy to add first editions of his ‘Valley of the Squinting Windows’ to their large book collection.
All gone now, but to quote James Orr, the Bard of Ballycarry, ‘The Savage Loves his Native Shore‘ and they loved theirs. So do their ghosts come to visit…I like to think they do. n