My grandmother Helen Comer, my mother’s mother, came from a Galway landscape defined by bog, sinking roads and vast mercurial skies. Her people were farmers. Everyone was farmers in that townland; small holdings of sheep and cattle with vegetable gardens for the house and turbary rights on the bog to provide turf for the fires. At 18, she went to America. Many others in my family, on both sides, emigrated to America and sank into it like the bog that swallowed my shoes and ankles and calves if I stood too long in it.
My grandmother lived in America for eight years, most of that time in Philadelphia, and the astonishing thing is that she came home. She was the only one of my relatives who went to America and who came home. It appears that my grandmother, then 26, returned home to an arranged marriage made my by great-grandparents with a local man – my grandfather Luke – who crucially had a farm. She had come from her small, remote townland of Knockauns in rural north Galway, and lived in the distant energy of America, a place unknowable to every other person then living in that townlands, since nobody else had ever been there. And she had come back to it. This made her unique: many had left, but she was the only one of her generation who returned. She never left the townland again. I do not think she even went to Galway once during the rest of her life, let alone to Dublin.
The one possession I have that belonged to my grandmother, who died several years before I was born, is a small, stout, hard-covered book whose red cloth-board covers are warped. I’m looking at it now. All the years of my childhood, it stood on a shelf in the room called the parlour in the small farmhouse where my mother and my two aunts were raised, the house in which my grandmother lived on her return from America. Somehow, the book survived. There were so few possessions in that house that each of them took on an iconic status: the simple wooden dresser, the pine kitchen table, so scrubbed that the lines of the grain stood out like anxious veins, the huge black kettle that was forever brooding on the fire; the sanctuary lamp burning unnoticed in the front of the picture of the Sacred Heart.
That interior has become a cliché of so may stage sets of Irish plays – perhaps it was always a cliché of itself – that it should be difficult to locate my own family’s integrity within it. But somehow it is not. My eldest aunt, Noreen, inherited the house and farm. I came to visit each summer.
For me, it was no cliché. It was my reality, that storied dimly lit kitchen were I sat by the turf fire that burned steadfastly year-round. The table on which I ate countless dinners over all the summers of my childhood, the bat that flew in the open window one summer evening when I was 10, and how my uncle caught it in a towel and threw it back into the liquid night, the frenzied geometric blackness of the bat catching forever in the tangles of my memory.
The title of the book that my grandmother brought home with her from Philadelphia in the 1920s is What A Young Woman Should Know. It is a book about etiquette. What a young woman should wear. What she should say. How she should eat. What she should know about behaving in polite society; in a society where elaborate dinners were served to scores and involved crystal, venison and wines; where gentlemen called on ladies in lace dresses; where ladies withdrew to the drawing room and coped with delicate nerves and handkerchiefs while the men drank spirits and smoked cigars. There was an entire chapter in the etiquette of calling cards alone.
It was a coded handbook for survival in a world my grandmother did not occupy. On the farm in Galway, where the three small upstairs rooms opened into each other without corridors or privacy, where there was no electricity, no bathroom, no cars, no crystal, and no paved roads, she would never need to know any of the things in this book. Yet it stayed there on the parlour shelf, all the years of her life, and afterwards.
When I first came to stay in that house as a child, there was still no bathroom in the house: washing was done in a bowl in the scullery under the stairs. There was a blue chemical toilet in the barn, screened off by corrugated iron. There was no phone, no television, and nobody in the entire townland owned a car. Everyone biked. Electricity had been put in less than a decade previously. My aunt cooked everything on the fire.
We did hard physical work: saving hay for a fortnight straight from dawn until twilight so that my bones ached and my stomach always felt empty. Other weeks, we footed turf on the bog, then spent days stacking it in the barn after bringing it home on a donkey and cart. It was life pared back, as I experienced it; utterly different from my other house and other life in the small town I lived in. All that time, my dead grandmother’s book remained standing on a shelf in the parlour. It wasn’t until much later that I thought that the culture shock my grandmother experienced in reverse by returning to her rural community from a larger American city, was in some ways similar to the shock I had as a child of going from living in a house with a bathroom to a house with none. It wasn’t just the bathroom, of course, but that was the most visceral difference for a child.
Recently, my mother Catherine told me a story about my grandmother. In Philadelphia, she and my great aunt, also Catherine, after whom my mother was named, both worked as domestic maids. They went together one winter’s day to the public park in Philadelphia. It had been snowing.
My grandmother saw something bright and strange in the white snowdrifts. She glimpsed it only for an instant, but it travelled through her consciousness like an arrow and pulled her back mid-step. Or at least, this is the way I imagine it. What my grandmother had seen in the snow was an emerald ring, set with diamonds, and made of gold. The fierce glitter of the diamonds, the sheen of the emerald, the burnished gold.
She lifted it out of the snow. They must have tried that ring on, my grandmother Helen and my great-aunt Catherine. Watched the weird refracted light of the snow flash against that intense colour. Fine ladies wearing emeralds and diamonds. It was possibly the most valuable thing she ever held in her hand, then or later.
The next day, my grandmother saw a small ad in the Lost and Found section of the local paper. Lost, one emerald and diamond ring. In the park where she had found it. Reward offered. She contacted the person who had placed the ad. It was his wife’s engagement ring. She refused to accept the substantial monetary reward, much to his surprise.
I think I know why she did not accept the money. I don’t think it had to do with pride. Finding the ring was never about money. It was about serendipity, luck, something even magical. A beautiful object unexpectedly revealed in the jewelbox of snow. Something to dream over, even if for one night.
And it made me understand why she might have bought that book about etiquette, which I now treasure as my one link with her. A young lady who found a precious ring would need a primer for all the other extraordinary things that may happen to her, that she would need to know, such as attending 10 course banquets, ordering carriages, tipping maids at country house gatherings and leaving her card when people she called on were not At Home.