When​ my grandfather died of a heart attack in 1927, he was the father of three young children and did not know that a fourth child, my mother, was on the way. This strangeness – the growth of a baby after the death of its parent – was both tragic and miraculous. It made my mother feel odd about her existence, I think, which is not the same as feeling odd about herself. She was more than a surprise, she was a remnant, a gift from beyond the grave. And though her own mother said she was a great blessing, now, more than ninety years later, the tragic timing of her arrival seems painful and private, as though death itself had gone wrong.

One of her uncles was a priest – in fact, many of her uncles were priests, but one of these priests was a fervent Irish language revivalist, the spare and ascetic t-Athair Domhnall Ó Tuathail (Father Dan Toal). He developed his own system for teaching Irish and, during the summer, ran a school in Omeath, a seaside village at the foot of the Mourne mountains. This was a respectable and patriotic way for young people to holiday, and it was here, in 1918, that my grandmother met her future husband, the priest’s brother Henry. They locked eyes over the Tuiseal Ginideach, the much inflected, always shifting, Irish genitive case, and they fell, a little inconveniently, in love.

We know it was inconvenient and we know it was love, not because they ever spoke of such things, but because Henry was subsequently sued by another woman for breach of promise. My grandmother, Ursula MacParland, paid the fine (or did I imagine that?) and secured her man. She had a small inheritance to spend after the death of her parents and worked as a teacher. She had been, in 1913, one of the earliest women to get a degree from UCD.

Whatever there was by way of romance or distinction in my grandmother’s story was undone by the early death of her husband, which was followed, nearly nine months later, by the arrival of a child born out of normal time. At the age of 34, she was an orphan, a widow and the single, pregnant mother of three young children. It was too much, I think. She spent her days reading and her talents as a gardener were much admired, but she was a poor housekeeper and did not always seem to care.

In the 1930s she got a job in the foreign section of the Hospital Sweepstakes, Ireland’s international lottery, alongside other women who could speak a European language and who needed the money. Many of these women were widows. One of the most ambitious – she would become the office manager – was Eileen Joyce, the sister of James, who had fluent Italian after years spent in Trieste. She went there in 1910, according to her daughter Bozena, ‘in order to cultivate her fine voice’, and lived with James and Nora, and sometimes their brother Stanislaus and sister Eva, on and off for the next eighteen years. Family legend has it that Eileen rescued the manuscript of ‘Stephen Hero’ from the fire where her brother had thrown it in despair.

Back home in Dublin in the mid 1930s, widowed and working for the sweepstakes, Eileen did not admit to her literary connection, except privately. James Joyce was still a ‘dirty word’, her daughter wrote, ‘a name mentioned only by my mother and grandfather’. Eileen also mentioned it to my grandmother, Ursula, who read the books, hiding them away from her children under the quilt – so perhaps this was the kind of secret that people in Dublin were happy to know.

After I read Richard Ellmann’s biography of Joyce in my twenties, I asked my mother about Eileen. She knew quite a lot about her mother’s friend. The Joyce family had lived locally for some years. Eileen had a flat in Mountjoy Square, where she stayed during the week, and a little villa-style bungalow for her daughters in Bray, near the sea. My mother recognised, vaguely, the story of Lucia’s visit, when Joyce’s troubled daughter stayed in Bray and lit a fire on the living-room floor. She did not, however, know the story of how Eileen became a widow, and she was not altogether interested in being told.

Eileen’s husband, Frantisek Schaurek, killed himself in November 1926, while Eileen was in Dublin visiting her sick father. Bozena, who was nine at the time, recalled a night of great storm, during which Schaurek looked out the window at the waves while the phone kept ringing. Before he left for work on Monday, he told her of a dream in which ‘a black horse bit him.’ The next time she saw her father, he was dead. Her uncle Stanislaus told the children he had been in a car accident, but she spotted a newspaper article that gave the cause as suicide.

Bozena remembered a childhood lived in some style, with servants and an apartment filled with fine furnishings. On the day of her father’s funeral, she wrote, all the antique shops of Trieste closed in order to ‘honour their ardent client’. She also said that her father had been ruined by the stock market crash – a theory not supported by the dates. Other sources say Schaurek was a bank cashier who had been caught embezzling. His was a terrible death that scattered the facts even as it made them, and some of those ‘facts’, as remembered by his daughter, were quite grand.

James had been best man at Eileen’s wedding and was fond of his sister, who was, of all his siblings, the most like him in being extravagant, superstitious and able to sing. Stanislaus wrote to James in Paris to tell him the terrible news. Eileen was on her way from Dublin to Trieste, and stopped to visit James along the way but, when she arrived, he could not bring himself to tell her what had happened. He left that task to Stanislaus – Eileen’s least favourite brother – who met her on the station platform in Trieste, taking off his black armband and the black band on his hat so as not to alarm her as she got off the train. By this time, her husband had been buried a week.

None of this tragic past was known in Dublin, or if it was known, it was completely suppressed by my grandmother, who considered gossip a sin. The details circle round my brain every once in a while. I wonder what James did during Eileen’s visit. Perhaps he left her to Nora and got on with Finnegans Wake – the early pages had not been well received. I imagine them after dinner, singing some of their favourites from the old days. How could he look at her and not say? His letter to Harriet Weaver was direct:

My brother-in-law in Trieste blew his brains out while my sister was on her way from Ireland to Trieste. He was dead when she was here and neither she nor my wife … knew about it … I had a dreadful time playing up to them and was almost in the ‘jimjams’ for about a month after. He lived, unconscious, for 26 hours after rolling his eyes from side to side.

‘Poor Mamma,’ Bozena wrote. ‘What a dreadful homecoming! We were all in black, and the servants were crying. She just could not believe what had occurred. She demanded that the coffin be exhumed and opened. The shock caused her to lose her memory for a period of months.’ It takes a certain kind of woman to require the coffin of her husband be opened in her sight, a week or more after he has shot himself in the head. Indeed, her writer brother might have been prudent not to unleash such terrible, grave-scrabbling grief before the woman was safely off the train.

My grandfather’s death, which happened a year later, was also terrible, but all it scattered was silence. ‘How did your father die?’ we used to ask my mother, quite cruelly, when we were children. He was found dead in his bed by my aunt, who was just five years old, when she went to wake him from a nap one Saturday lunchtime. What kind of man was he? She doesn’t know. My grandmother did not speak about him much. Perhaps, in the circumstances, his personal qualities were beside the point.

There was no talk of money or servants in the life that was lost when my grandfather was lost. If there were compensatory grandiosities they were all about school. Ursula’s three daughters did exams my mother still dreams about. They were expected to be first in Ireland in something, or at least third in Ireland overall, or best in Dublin at a pinch, and they would use all this bestness to get a job in the civil service for the relief of her impoverished widowhood. And that is what they did. The man, who had worked in Customs and Excise, had left no pension. He did not sign the paper. There was some piece of paper and he forgot to sign it, or he did not bother, or want to sign it. He thought he had more time.

Brian O’Nolan, who wrote under the name Flann O’Brien, also went to work in the civil service after the death of his father, who had also worked in Customs and Excise, and who left twelve children behind. According to his biographer, Anthony Cronin, Customs and Excise did not offer a pension. These are the useful facts I stumble across in the lives of Irish writers, to explain old tragedies that are nearly my own. I tell my mother that there was no paper to sign, and she does not really want to believe me. This is a woman who, in her early twenties, worked down the hall, and considerably down the pecking order, from Brian O’Nolan. They never spoke. They couldn’t. A conversation between two such people was in no way possible at that time.

Father Dan Toal died on the altar, aged 42, while preaching at St Malachy’s Church in Belfast. Of the twelve Toal siblings, four died in childhood, two got married and the rest became priests or nuns. My aunt had a family tree drawn up, with the priests’ names done in fancy calligraphy, and the pruned branches of Father this and Father that sticking out on every side. Their sisters the nuns were not highlighted, but there were plenty of them too. My mother made it into the world on her departing father’s coat-tails with only moments to spare. Given the enthusiastic celibacy of his forebears, it is lucky she was conceived at all.

If I ask at home to look at old photographs, my mother, who is 93, will tell me on no account to write about all this, as though having priests and nuns in the family is another kind of secret too shameful to reveal. Early death, unexpected poverty, a pregnant widow; the hurt of these unnatural reversions turned the whole world into strangers. But because all silences are the same, and each silence contains anything you can imagine, the secrets that concerned my mother might just as well have been about embezzlement, or suicide, or a woman maddened by grief digging up her dead husband. The secret might have been an unsigned piece of paper. The secret might have been about books that were too dirty to leave around the house, or about fame itself, which ran so close to notoriety. The secret, I think, was poverty. Meanwhile – trailing behind these other Irish secrets but taking all the attention, all the glory – the secret was always about sex. Ah, yes. Sex outside marriage, or on the edge of a marriage, or too close to the grave. There wasn’t a lot of it on that side of the family, truth be told.

I was forbidden to read Ulysses in my teens and forced to read Dubliners instead. I hated it. The paralysis it describes among the Irish middle classes lived on, more or less exactly preserved, in the lives and conversational habits of my aunts. When Miss Ivors taunts Gabriel, in ‘The Dead’, for not learning Irish, she might have been a classmate of my grandparents at that Irish summer school. These narrative details are not, for me, just local colour. I mean, they do not seem entirely fictional.

I am talking, I think, about what it means to be part of a tradition, which is not just a question of reading some books and recognising the accent. There is a sense of being both inside and outside the text, and many different forms of ownership or recognition. These feelings are not just aesthetic, they are personal. And though the connections between the reader and a long dead writer can be incidental or anecdotal, they also feel genetic. The shared silences, the any-secret-at-all such silences contain, are a kind of shared dispossession. So when I am asked how Irish writers feel about Joyce, it is not unlike being asked how I feel about my grandmother. I never really knew her as a person, though I know I must be like her in some ways. I like to read and to do the garden. She makes me curious about myself. I also know that she was mine.

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