(The Lost Essay was read on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1 in May 2013)
Hanging above the desk in my study there are two A4 pages, photocopies, in a pine frame with a cream mount. On them is an essay composed by my ten-year-old grandfather in 1937. Written in Irish with a certain flourish – loops, links and smudges aplenty – the essay outlines the history of Convamore House, built by William Hare, 1st Earl of Listowel, beside the River Blackwater in the early 19th century. I inherited this framed essay two and a half years ago when my Granddad died at 84 years of age.
Growing up in Ballyhooly Village in North Cork, I lived only five miles from my grandparent’s home of Ashgrove Cottage. It was a Saturday ritual to travel to Hickey’s, our local village shop, with Granddad and Nana. Granddad would place pound coins in our hands; ‘Put that in your pocket,’ he’d say gruffly, looking almost awkward if we thanked him too much. Behind the counter in Hickey’s were rows of five- and ten-pence bars. I’d no intention of buying just one bar of Cadbury’s chocolate and a packet of Taytos. Instead my thoughts were on how I might buy as many sweets as possible. My mouth watered at the sight of Desperate Dans, chewy orange gum laced with black sherbet. There were ten-pence corn crisps, the kind that get stuck in my teeth, sherbet dips in the shape of pencils, cola bottles and flying saucers. I’d watch carefully what sisters bought, not wanting her to make better choices; jealousy would ruin what I already had.
By my mid teens, this ritual had evolved and I often spent Saturdays helping Granddad (whose knees were beginning to get the better of him) in the garden of Ashgrove Cottage. Outside, the main road was busier than ever, but a pebbledash wall, wired to hold honeysuckle, guarded the house from the worst of the dust. Either side of a central pathway were raised flowerbeds with old-fashioned roses that I’d help tend; his two Jack Russells, Miley and Tiny, poked their noses through the tools and mesh that lay on the ground beside me. It was around this time that I won a local short story competition. Granddad was exceptionally proud, saying ‘sure, didn’t brains run in the family’, telling me about an essay he had written before World War II, one that was stored in an archive in Dublin.
Three years ago, during my Masters in University College Dublin, I studied The Archive of Imagination: Myth & Folklore in Fiction under the tutelage of Éilís Ní Dhuibhne. For one of her classes we visited the National Folklore Collection, where a guide outlined the various records that had been collected over the 20th Century. He related how the Irish Folklore Commission, in collaboration with the Department of Education and the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, had initiated a scheme in which schoolchildren were encouraged to collect and document folklore and local history. This scheme ran over a period of eighteen months; 100,000 children in 5,000 primary schools were encouraged to collect folklore material in their home districts. In all this, though a decade had passed, my Grandfather’s account about his essay came to mind. After some searching I found his work, got a photocopy, and on my next visit to North Cork was able to present him with the essay he hadn’t seen in 70 years.
As with all things, he appeared pleased, but he was never the gushing type. Yet, the next time I visited his house, I discovered the essay had been framed and had pride of place above one of the cabinets in the living room. My aunt later told me about the joy Granddad had experienced upon seeing it after so many years, and how he’d insisted that she get it framed.
Granddad died in 2010; it was decided that the framed pages would be given back to me. And, for the last two years, it’s hovered above my desk, a lucky talisman of sorts, something I glance at now and again when I write, a reminder of what has been lost and yet, how much yet remains.