A Foreign Country
I have to peer closely. Is that really us?
“What have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person.” George Orwell
My mum’s cousin, Margie Beirne left us in December. Margie was a World Trade Centre survivor, as the priest described at her funeral:
Margie was working on the 99th floor of the South Tower. When the plane hit the North Tower, she encouraged others to start walking down the stairs … About half way down, an announcement was made that their building was secure and that everyone should return to their offices. Margie encouraged the others to continue to the street and not to go back. They barely got to the street when the South Tower collapsed.
Margie, a lovely woman ‘inside and out’ as my cousin, Siobhán, put it, never like to talk about that grim day. Friends she made in retirement had no idea that she had been present at the WTO. It was something too painful to discuss, even with her siblings.
A couple of years ago, Margie sent me two photos, recording a much happier memory. In the summer 1963, she toured Europe with her friend Flossie. In June, the young women joined a family reunion at 8 Davisville Road, our house in London. Margie took photo which became slides — a big craze in the mid Sixties. With typical kindness, she arranged for them to be digitized.
Seeing these images for the first time was a startling experience. The very few family photos I have from this period are in grainy black and look like they’ve been taken in a candlelit cave. These made me feel like Dorothy stepping through the door leading out of a sepia Kansas into the technicolour Oz.
The table tells its own story. In an Irish family, the visit of an American branch requires the hospitality dial to be turned to eleven. This is one those multi-course banquets laid on by Chinese dignitaries for honoured guests — but all served at once. The salad plate piled all-you-can-eat-buffet high parked. Bakewell tarts and biscuits. Crackers!
The best crockery or delf, as the Irish called it, has been wheeled out, but there are quirky touches. The fancy salt shaker seems to have lost its twin pepper pot. It has been replaced by Saxa container that has seen better days. The shiny red bowl is presumably for small hands.
Some big surprises, too. Brown bread? All I can remember is Mother’s Pride — thin slices of recycled cardboard the colour of washing powder.
And surely that can’t be a sauce? Well, no, it’s Heinz salad cream which was bland enough to get past the absolute ban on any kind of spice. Vinegar? Malt, of course, but that normally only appeared for chips. It certainly wouldn’t be let near the salad — we didn’t do dressing. Olive oil only existed in the Elizabeth David cookery book we’d never heard of.
I am never confident identifying people in photos. The first person I recognised was Nora second from the right. Nora was my great aunt by marriage to Jimmy Beirne top, far left. I think we can only have met a few times, as she lived in New York, but I remembered her distinctive profile, perhaps from other photos.
The dapper gentleman to her right is my maternal grandad, Pat Beirne. A veteran of the Irish War of Independence he was already in his sixties by this point — and long past his boycott of England and all who sailed in her. In 1921, he had been all set for a new life in America when a doctor at Ellis Island discovered a heart murmur. They refused him entry — a bitter blow but with a silver lining for me. Without the return leg of that epic wasted journey I could not be writing this.
So Grandad was the man who stayed at home, while his siblings dispersed in the rural Irish tradition: Jimmy went to New York, and a sister, Mary Theresa, entered a convent in Liverpool. There she would be trained as a teacher and renamed, Sister Kyran.
Another brother, Jodie, became one of the first post independence garda (policeman) and was apparently set for a fast-track career but I never heard anything about him and can find no trace now ^1. Ditto for my maternal grandmother, Mary-Ellen (nee Wynn). I don’t think Mary-Ellen ever came to England and she was never mentioned by anyone except my dad: ‘She had a few problems’ he said delicately, and left it at that.
I guessed that the pretty girl on the left is Nancy: daughter of Jimmy and Nora and she has confirmed this. Nancy tells me that the young woman not facing the camera is Flossie, a friend travelling with Margie. Flossie’s speech bubble would read: Wow! Is this how they eat in England?
I didn’t notice my dad far right for a moment, thrown I think by his youth. He’s on his best behaviour here, perhaps mindful of slightly strained relations with his father-in-law.
Then there’s the mother and child. My mother. Me. I have to peer closely. Is that really us?
I imagine this photo was taken on the obligatory house tour, with our guests standing in the doorway. Jacqui, my baby sister, has caught the eye of one of them. The rest of us smile for the camera, though Dad can only manage a Jack Nicholson-in-The Shining mad stare.
Not sure if my sister, Jacqui shared this bedroom with me and/or my parents. Standard London-Irish decor for the time, though we did have a thing for busy floral wallpaper — later a wacky purple version would climb every wall.
A photo is a frozen moment, of course. This one doesn’t hint at a brittle world that was already cracked and would eventually shatter. Jacqui was born in November 1962 and my mother suffered severe postnatal depression in that bitter winter. She never managed to escape it.
And yet this is candid in its own way: a cheering reminder to me that there were good days as well as bleak ones. Mum looks lively, lovely, happy.
Thank you, Margie.
In memory of Margie Beirne (1940–2021) Profound thanks to Nancy, Eileen and Siobhán for all their help in writing this.
¹An obituary in the Irish Independent indicates that Jodie Beirne died, in the year of this photo, in Dublin. He was unmarried and his father ‘the late Mr. James Beirne, was a Judge of the Sinn Fein Courts.’
More from my sort of memoir here