Tuesday, 10 June 2014

The slow crows and the thin geese - Michelle Lovric



the scene of the crime - Harristown Bridge, County Kildare

The poor - like love and crimes against love - tend to leave very little trace in history.

The poor of the Irish Famine, who died in their desperate multitudes, left less than most – not even tombstones. If they were buried at all, it was often under hedges, where their bones stood out whitely after harsh rain. Wild dogs would dig up shallow country graves. Not surprisingly, many of the starving staggered into the towns and dropped there, where at least their deaths were witnessed.

Researching a notional family of the Famine in County Kildare, I found that it was often through the records of the rich that I could view my quarry properly. So the wealthy La Touche landlords of the Harristown Estate provided my first entrance into the lives of their poorest tenants.

In March 2012, I made a wretched rain-sodden trip to County Kildare, to hunt down a habitat for the seven young Swiney girls – Darcy, Enda, Berenice, Manticory, Pertilly, Oona and Ida, who were to be the protagonists of The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters, published a few days ago. It was in some ways the loneliest and saddest trip I've ever made.
I had not anticipated what would happen to my feelings as I turned trespasser, climbing over fences to enter the beautiful grounds of the  La Touche estate, and seek out the places of my book and the scenes of various emotional crimes. I was searching for the native scenery of the Swiney Godivas, a singing septet born in grinding Irish poverty and rising to stardom and wealth, selling quack medical products.

Having looked at our largest organ in my last novel, The Book of Human Skin, I had turned to hair. It interested me as the part of the human body that is most visible, most changeable, being both the aspect of our appearance we can most easily alter (without surgery) and the characteristic that first announces encroaching age. Hair is the only piece of the human body that we still treasure after death. No one would tie a pink ribbon around the kidney or finger of a departed loved one, but a curl of hair is considered a touching relic.

 A novel built on hair needed an abundance of hairiness. So, in contrast to the thinness of their existence, eked out on the edge of the Harristown estate in the post-Famine years, my sisters are rich in torrents of hair. They may not have enough to eat, and they may suffer the stain of supposed illegitimacy, but they carry shameless luxury on their heads – 37 feet of it between them.

We Swineys were the hairiest girls in Harristown, Kildare, and the hairiest you’d find anywhere in Ireland from Priesthaggard to Sluggery. That is, our limbs were as hairless as marble, but on our heads, well, you’d not believe the torrents that shot from our industrious follicles like the endless Irish rain.

When we came into this world, our heads were not lightly whorled with down like your common infant’s. We Swineys inched bloodily from our mother’s womb already thickly ringletted. Thereafter that hair of ours never knew a scissor. It grew faster than we did, pawing our cheeks and seeking out our shoulder-blades. As small girls, our plaits snaked down our backs with almost visible speed. That hair had its own life. It whispered round our ears, making a private climate for our heads. Our hair had its roots inside us, but it was outside us as well. In that slippage between our inner and outer selves – there lurked our seven scintillating destinies and all our troubles besides.

By the time I went to Harristown, I’d already drafted out the Irish parts of my story and written some of the crucial scenes, finding inspiration in the lives of America’s Seven Sutherland Sisters, who really did boast this kind of hair.


As with all my books, I needed to replay the first-draft scenes in the places where they occur, using all the five senses to refine and invigorate the writing. Also, I knew I’d be drawing on the sixth sense, that prickle all novelists will know, that prickle between the shoulder blades when you are suddenly aware of your character breathing quietly behind you and reading over your shoulder – and, with luck, sighing in agreement with your words.

In the dizzy narrow lanes of Harristown, I saw my sisters superimposed on the landscape. I didn’t just see them: I heard and felt their lived experiences. The smell of peat fires soured and tanged the air. The sound-track of my visit to Harristown was the keening of the slow crows, the rude kisses of the mud seeking to suck my woefully inadequate shoes down to Hell, and the relentless and seemingly malicious whispering of the rain. I felt rather than thought about the dark conspiracy between poverty and shame. Even if I hadn’t set out to write a sad story, I think I would have been converted to tragedy by the that trip.


Before leaving the UK, I had of course collated a snug fat folder of historical maps. I had traced the railway lines and graveyards. I knew the bounds of the Harristown Estate. My first mission was to find the bridge where Manticory, my red-haired narrator, meets the first of several hair fetishists whom she shall have the misfortune to encounter. It is the age of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and thanks to paintings of amoral-looking ‘stunners’, whose wild, rich hair almost spills out of their frames,  the whole of Europe knows now that hair is a signifier of untamed sexual vigour in women. And untamed sexual vigour in women, as every good Victorian knew, was bound to lead to trouble ...

 To a child obsessed with reading, the tall figure who blocks Manticory's way seems like troll of the bridge. And the bridge itself is more than a physical place. In meeting that man, at that time, alone, Manticory is separated from her childhood stories, and dragged, by the hair, into a world where the architecture of her body renders her vulnerable to sexual predators. 

No more could I hold back that man’s desires than the river could resist that bridge. He was back at my parting, sniffing like a dog and moaning like a sick person asleep. His arms snaked around to press me against his thighs, where something thrummed against my unwilling chest as if he swished a fox’s tail before the fatal lunge.

‘I’m going to have you now,’ he told me.

 It was a pity to set such a horrible scene in such a lyrical location.

 In fact I had a choice of two lovely bridges across the Liffey on the Harristown estate. One, called ‘the new bridge’ was built on the road from the Carnalway Church to Brannockstown. The other one, much older, is to the east, in a more isolated area behind Harristown House, a walk across the fields from Brannockstown. It is here where I set the incident with Manticory and her fetishistic troll.

 In my mental map of the novel, the bridge stands between the hovel where Manticory lives with her sisters and the Brannockstown, where they go to school.

 To get to that bridge, I had to trespass on the Harristown Estate, now privately owned (no longer by La Touches) and sturdily gated. Perhaps I acquired a little of Manticory’s sense of exclusion when the gates were not opened for me by the owner, as I had expected, having written in advance.


Maybe the lady did me a favour when, instead, I had to climb a fence, take a damp, lonesome tramp across a bald field and through a copse before I found what I was looking for just as the sun broke out for a solitary shattering moment. 




The back of grand Harristown House looks down on the bridge. To my mind, there was a certain air of contempt about the grey stone hunched away from the bridge and fields. It leaked into the book, as did the strange sensations of standing on that bridge and feeling Manticory’s helplessness and the shame of her hunger in my own stomach.

And, as so often happens on research trips, the emotional dynamic of the novel played out with eerie accuracy. At Harristown bridge, I found myself in front of a man with a cruel mask of a face, looking at me with contempt. Just for a moment, I thought I must know him. But he was a stranger, after all. He had no interest in me and quickly walked away in search of something better than myself.

Manticory’s troll, however, has business with her.

 He wound his other hand around my hair and used it to drag me towards the trees.

 My scalp afire with hurting, I whimpered, and flung my eyes around. The rat-grey back of Harristown House hunched in the distance, its blank windows indifferent to me. The lane was deserted in both directions, with nothing but eddies of the dust rising that we in County Kildare deem ‘fairy-blast’. It was, for a rarity, not raining, though the slow crows hung like widows’ laundry on every still-sodden branch. The light was dimming and the lowering sky took on a magical, churning quality, half of silvery gnats and half of my own giddy terror, by which the clumps of moss that beetled the parapet now seemed to commence to crawl and swarm. Below me to the right, the limpid Liffey flowed into the seven maws of the bridge, which mashed its composure into foaming ruin on the other side.

Harristown House was originally built in 1662 by the Eustace family. At the time of my story, the owners were the wealthy La Touche family. David Digues La Touche des Rompieres emigrated from France when his Protestant faith put his family in danger. Trading in cambric and silk poplin, with a manufactory in the High Street, La Touche grew prosperous. His home became the repository for the valuables and money of all the Huguenot community in the city. The family set up officially as a bank in 1716. The La Touches invested in land, acquiring substantial property around St Stephen’s Green and Merrion Square and Delgany. Five La Touches also served as Members of Parliament. When the Irish Parliament was dissolved in the Act of Union, David La Touche, grandson of the founder of the La Touche Bank, bought the grand building in Dublin for the Bank of Ireland, of which he was the first elected governor.

Harristown was acquired by the La Touches in 1768 and became the seat of the Kildare branch of the family in 1783.

 The 1837 Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Ireland describes Harristown House as an elegant mansion with a stately Ionic portico, beautifully situated on an eminence on the right bank of the river Liffey, which winds through the demesne and is crossed by two stone bridges, one of which, at Brannockstown.

 At one time it boasted an ornamental lake, but this was filled in at the end of the eighteenth century.

 It was that vanished house I had to imagine because the original structure was gutted by fire in 1891 and then rebuilt to its current design.

Harristown itself is not really even a village. Now, as at the time the Harristown Sisters is set, it was a rural area sparsely populated. However, it was an electoral borough. Harristown once had had its own railway line including a railway bridge over the Liffey, built in 1885. The line closed in 1959, but, using my faithful railways map, I found the traces of the station. It has been said that the influence of the La Touche family resulted in the railway line being diverted conveniently into the Harristown estate instead of proceeding logically to the nearest town of Kilcullen. My sisters use the line, which also arrives close to the tiny cottage that their mother Annora refuses to leave, even when they become rich and famous.

‘The Master’ of Harristown was John La Touche. A small man with a neatly trimmed beard, the Master was very far from being an absentee landlord. Indeed, during the Famine, he took measures to reduce consumption in his own household, allowing no white bread or pastry on the table. His deer parks were emptied to feed the starving. He also supported Land Reform.

He succeeded to the property in 1844, on the eve of the Famine, and lived there for sixty-two years. His wife, Maria, was a novelist, an opponent of blood sports and a great letter writer. John Ruskin called her ‘Lacerta’, meaning lizard, explaining that she had the grace and wisdom of a serpent but was without its venom.

 John and Maria La Touche had three children – Percy, Emily (known as ‘Wisie’) and Rose, who became the subject of John Ruskin’s obsessive love until she died in 1875.

In the original draft of my book, poor Manticory Swiney watches Rose La Touche living a childhood dramatically removed from her own. Rose parades around the estate on her white pony, Swallow, handing out religious tracts to the worthy poor, who would probably rather have had a gift of potatoes or Indian Meal without weevils. But as my novel grew in size, Rose La Touche was edited out. She’s there for me in palimpsest – living the life, rich with choices and dignity, which Manticory is denied.

The Swineys are, of course, invented, as is their cottage, but I imagined them as tenants of this small house on the Harristown estate, attending the local National School across the bridge in Brannockstown, the nearest village.

 Annora, the mother of the Swiney sisters, cannot read. Shockingly, that is not shocking. I am indebted to the local historian Chris Lawlor for some sad and surprising statistics, contained in his marvelous book - An Irish Village: Dunlavin, County Wicklow.  One Irish Catholic in four did not know their letters. The illiteracy rate in nearby Dunlavin was 22 per cent for Catholics in 1881, though 4 per cent for Protestants.

 My trip yielded another surprise. My sisters, I discovered, would have spoken English rather than Irish.

 National Schools were set up from 1831 onwards. The language taught was English. The Famine had in any case wiped out a million poorer Irish citizens, those most likely to use their native tongue. The Famine sent another million away from Ireland, looking for work. English was spoken more than Irish on the east side of the country in any case.


Chris Lawlor took time out to meet me at the looming grey Killashee House Hotel, and answered my long list of questions with exceptionally good grace though with occasionally widened eyes. By that time I’d already pored through An Irish Village, finding in there the novelist’s treasure of what things costs, where you bought them, and how you earned them.


Chris delivered on promises to send on afterwards some examples of particular Kildare/Wicklow sayings and forms of address. His book was also wonderfully useful for a list of local fairies and witches. He agreed with me about the cognitive dissonance of otherwise ardent Catholics when it came to the horned Witches of Slievenamon or the Dunlavin Banshee, in whom many country Catholics believed as implicitly as in God. Annora is a model of piety but she cannot resist a fairy.

 The Roman Catholic religion remained dominant among the poorer, less educated classes in Ireland, even after the faith was suppressed. With the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 there was a revival of the Catholic faith. It saw another surge in popularity after the Famine, during which the British/Anglican infrastructure had showed itself insensitive or indifferent to the plight of the poor.

 The suppression of the Catholic faith until 1829 meant that worship was difficult for Catholics even decades after the ban was lifted. Many Catholic churches had fallen into fatal disrepair. It took years for the physical stock of the Catholic faith to be renewed in Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and Saint Brigid in Kilcullen was not dedicated until 1872. Catholics had to travel miles to worship. So my Catholic sisters might have worshipped at St Joseph’s at Yellow Bog, or at St Peter's, Twomile House, or at the Immaculate Conception at Ballymore Eustace, or at St Nicholas of Myra built in 1815 at Dunlavin. 

 But in March 2012, I visited St Josephs and St Peters, wrinkling my nose. Manticory was distinctly not there. I went back to my old map of the Burial Grounds of Kildare. It took several encounters with farmer’s wives, before I was buzzed through a gate into a field where I found the ivied, roofless ruins of an ancient church with its own graveyard. Its desolation marked it as a Catholic place of worship.  



In a niche inside the roofless walls is a stone that reads: 'Eustace Lord Portlester 1462’. Most of the tombstones there are from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, indicating active use at that time. Yet the Burial Grounds Survey of Kildare shows that the church was recorded (so presumably functional) in 1837 but reclassified as a ruin in the 1897 – 1913 survey map of the area. It records the denomination as ‘mixed’, but with the prosperous Anglo-Irish of Harristown worshipping at elegant Carnalway, it seems likely that the majority – poor Catholics – would have used this church.


One can still visit the beautiful Carnalway church when services are held. I lurked around to catch it open and crept in at the back, as I had set a scene for Manticory there. Carnalway was Church of Ireland – Protestant – as was Harristown’s Master originally. (He later converted to Baptist). So it is an act of heresy for Manticory to set foot in there. I tried to read the quiet stones as she would have done – fearfully, and some strong feelings emerged. Afterwards, I pressed my nose against the iron railings behind which is the overgrown mausoleum that houses the mortal remains of Rose la Touche, who died tragically young of a brain fever.

Steep, winding Kilcullen was the nearest town of any size to Harristown – with a population of 699 in 1837. It had a market every Saturday a police station, a dispensary and a court of petty session. In my book, it is the place of the Swiney Godiva’s debut. The Kilcullen dispensary is an important place of transactions. Fierce Darcy and her eternal rival the Eileen O’Reilly, the butcher’s runt, have their first violent encounter there as infants. And Mrs Godlin, who runs the dispensary, is one those characters every writer needs  to invent, as connective tissue between the old and transformed lives of her protagonists. It is Mrs Godlin who will keep the sisters apprised of goings-on in Harristown as they travel to Paris, Venice and London with their singing septet. She makes sure that they know what they need to know, be it gossip or tragedy.

 My story ends in Venice – a town of four hundred bridges –in a palazzo on the Grand Canal.  Despite the fame and riches that have bought her a new life, Manticory cannot leave her Famined past behind her.

 It did not bypass my thoughts that all this magnificence was created at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Swineys immemorial back in Ireland were living on oats and sleeping in windowless turf huts heated by roasted dried cow dung, only dreaming of the luxury of a thin goose at Michaelmas.

 But Manticory’s Irishness is still a part of her. Reflecting on the strange events of her story, she remarks, finally:

 They say that the Irish don’t understand irony, but in fact we’re teeming with it, like a head full of hair, like a head full of memories, like a moth in a mousetrap, like a sack of shame that empties itself into a book and finds itself redeemed.



The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters was published by Bloomsbury on June 5th


The publishers have created a rich and fascinating Pinterest board about long hair and literature


Michelle Lovric’s website

 Chris Lawlor’s blog is here

5 comments:

carol drinkwater said...

Wow, Michelle, what a fabulous and evocative post. Thank you.
I am by birth a Catholic from farming family in County Laois. My mother's maternal family were from Kildare and my great-grandmother used to walk to our family farm in Laois, a journey that took her two or three days. Her great swinging skirt pockets were filled with provisions for the road. She lived to be 99. I wrote a book for young readers for Scholastic, The Hunger, set, of course during the Irish Potato Famine and called the main character Phyllis McCormack, which is my mother's name.
There is so much rich material to be mined on 19th century Ireland, a tragic and bloodthirsty time for the Republic. And the shame forced upon earlier generations, frequently brought about by poverty and ignorance, is still counting its victims.
I love the fact that you walk and live the paths and byways of your story. I do that, too.
Huge good luck with the new book.

michelle lovric said...

Thank you, Carol. Yes, the Famine tales are endlessly tragic. The fact that much of the suffering was a political construct - that is so hard to accept. Comparing Carnalway's smug perfect Anglican church to the Catholic church's ruins made things so very clear. I had to forcibly remove myself from that area of research as there is just too much to know, some of it hardly bearable. I think I knew it was time to stop the day I read that Queen Victoria donated £2000 to the Irish famine victims while a single banquet in her honour in Dublin Castle in 1849 cost more than £5000.

On the other hand, your great-grandmother's story sounds wonderfully uplifting. No shame there! How do people escape the taint of shame in poverty? It must have taken a rare spirit.

Maria McCann said...

A fascinating post, Michelle. And as someone who has the very finest of baby hair, I was amazed by that photograph of proper Victorian tresses.

Susan Price said...

The Irish don't understand irony? - Who was ever fool enough to say that? - But wonderful post. Thank you. I enjoyed every line.

carol drinkwater said...

I think it must have been Oscar Wilde, Susan!!!