THE FAMILY ON PARADISE PIER

Dermot Bolger on the Writing of The Family on Paradise Pier:

Somehow, amid all the moves and turmoil of her life, the childhood summer photographs of the Goold Verschoyle children survived. Sheila Fitzgerald’s sketchbook also exists, snatched from a bonfire when – as an old woman living an alternative lifestyle in a caravan in Turlough in Mayo – she tried to burn it, convinced that nobody would be interested in images of her family at play in Donegal while the new Irish Free State was awkwardly being born. As a novelist, I have studied those sketches for four years, still astonished at the vibrant joy they radiate, still trying to recapture the carefree life they chronicle, still stirred by how their innocent rapture offers no forewarning of the conflicts and tragedies that awaited her family.    

There were five Goold Verschoyle children – physically striking, headstrong, raised amid a freethinking babble of debate where no viewpoint was taboo. Sheila was second born, with one older sister, Eileen, and three brothers younger. She was closest in age in Neil, the heir apparent, whose birth meant so much to her parents. Neil was her special friend, her confidant and minder. Neil was set to inherit the family property as the eldest son of the eldest son, under a strict legal indenture that could never be broken. Neil Goold Verschoyle would reject his inheritance and become a vehement communist, move to Moscow and be forced to leave a wife and child behind during Stalin’s 1930s purges, live and work and proselytise amid Dublin’s worst slums and suffer incarceration in Mountjoy Jail and the Curragh Camp for communist agitation. He self-published strident pamphlets denouncing the evils of Trotskyism, renounced his privileged Protestant upbringing and isolated himself from the family he loved. Briefly, Brendan Behan’s mother – who considered Neil a saint – sheltered him in her corporation home in Crumlin. Few Irish communists renounced more for that cause, yet his name rarely appears in histories of communism.

Neil is an earnest, handsome youth in Sheila’s childhood photographs. He seems an idyllic happy figure in the sketches of her family bathing off Bruckless Pier. So indeed is her youngest brother Brian. They bathe, stage fancy dress parties or enjoy glorious picnics on a neighbour’s horse-drawn float. Brian wears comical hats and seems dwarfed by his older brothers. Nothing prepares you for the fate he would suffer as a volunteer working with the Russians in the Spanish Civil War. Growing disillusioned, he was tricked onto a Soviet ship in Barcelona and disappeared. Imprisoned in Soviet gulags, while his mother desperate sought his whereabouts, he died in the hellhole of a prisoner transport cattle-wagon bombed by Nazi pilots. Brian’s name also never occurs in histories of the Irish left.

Yet no shadows blot Sheila’s sketches as her boisterous siblings fill the family home in Dunkineely. Their Visitors Book shows people always crowding in to share that space. Cousins or friends from boarding school and local children who felt free to play tennis in the garden or wander into the coachhouse where Sheila had her painting studio.

In later life although Sheila did not become as entangled as her brothers in politics, she too campaigned tirelessly for causes she believed in. Pauline Bewick remembers her in 1950s Dublin as a tiny crusader covered in flour hurled by an outraged citizen after Sheila took part in a protest. The poet Paul Durcan attended her utterly innovative child art classes, which started his passion for painting. Other young artists like Camille Souter found lodgings in her home in Frankfurt Avenue, with walls covered in paintings by children – sometimes on whitewashed sheets of newspaper when Sheila could not afford blank sheets.

Sheila’s quest was spiritual, to strip away the veneer of complexity and strive – despite tragedies and setbacks – to grasp the joy at the core of life. She was still a bohemian alternative thinker when I met her first in 1977. At seventy-three, her caravan in Mayo was an ark for stray animals and people. I was eighteen. She taught me to believe in my dreams and my life was never the same again.

Art was Sheila’s childhood passion, with Dunkineely children always encouraged to visit her studio and try their hand at painting. Her father, Hamilton Frederick Stuart Goold-Verschoyle  – a pacifist who supported Home Rule – treated every local person equally. A utopian barrister, who often defended locals up on petty charges without seeking payment, his passion was composing music. It was sentimental, in the period fashion, especially the tone poem in his unperformed Tir na nOgsymphony:

“Far, far away, across the sea
There lies an island divinely fair
Where spirits blest forever dwell
And breathe its radiant enchanted air.”  

He loved Walt Whitman and carried Leaves of Grass in his pocket on family walks. Occasionally he anonymously contributed to An Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times. He also contributed to The Dunkineely News, a fun-filled, hand-typed family newspaper edited by his eldest daughter. He loved cats and his favourite black one, which sat on the piano when he composed, was christened “Guaranteed To Purr In Any Position.” Most of all he loved his wife and children.

His wife, Sibyl, suffered from arthritis but loved to garden and paint. Like many upper class women she was fascinated by mysticism. Household decisions often fell to her eldest daughter, who, when the IRA stole the family car, visited the cottage where she heard the local IRA were based to plead for its return. Startled volunteers played her protestant hymns on a gramophone until their commander returned and handed back the car. The IRA returned one night to commandeer two bicycles, but put away their guns after Mrs Goold Verschoyle exclaimed how she hated the sight of weapons.

It helped that the family was related to the rebel Countess Markievicz, although Northern Irish cousins were Orangemen. Sheila recalled writing poems in support of the IRA and her autograph book suggest similar Nationalist sympathies by other siblings. The family looked forward to playing their role in a new Ireland, not realising how the new Ireland would allow no role for them.

The outside world began intruding into Sheila’s paradise. Their neighbour Mr Fforde regularly features in her sketches, yet she never discussed whether he influenced their destiny. The Ffordes were among a tiny Irish handful of Baha’is but began to preach a new doctrine in Donegal. A British naval officer, Fforde had converted to the Bolshevik cause and briefly moved with his wife to Moscow to work in a factory. Although an accident drove him back to Donegal, his zeal never wavered and he became a regular sight at fairs, making communist speeches while his wife handed out pamphlets. One can only speculate about his influence on the Goold Verschoyle boys during long rides home from picnics on his horse drawn float. Today his home in Bruckless is a luxury guesthouse but beside the pier in the garden, christened “Paradise Pier” in my novel, a stone marks the unconsecrated grave where the Ffordes lie buried. His inscription is stark and brave: “The immortality of the dead exist only in the minds of the living.

Sheila’s sketchbook ends abruptly. She wrote “I stopped after the day two young men came down from the mountain… the arrival of these strangers brought the more complex world into our small oasis… (and) heralded the time to grow up.”

But I always wanted to know more about her life after the sketchbook ended. About her struggles as a newly wed in Mayo, her return to a dilapidated woodland house there with two children during the war, her estrangement from the husband who accused her of living “in the ether” and her quest for freedom as a separated woman and then a widow.

I wondered what motivated her brothers in Moscow and Spain, how her family were splintered by Neil’s entrenched renunciation of the empty Manor House which he inherited, and how they coped with the mystery of Brian’s disappearance and never knowing if he was alive or dead.

Sheila often talked of writing her life story. Yet I never realised how seriously she wanted to be a writer until I discovered her passport from 1968, listing her occupation as “writer”. Beside it a tattered page listed stories she had written and the helpful comments of editors who rejected them. She was sixty-five when applying for that passport, travelling to cheap parts of Spain and Morocco, trying to write and live a full spiritual life, engaging with new ideas and people. Her notebook was filled more with quotations from mystics than with her own thoughts. Perhaps – as she found with painting in London’s Slade School fifty years before, the more she tried to write the less she actually could. Possibly she was trying to escape the pain of losing her beloved son in London in 1966. Her pain was redoubled in 1970 when her beloved daughter died in Kenya in mysterious circumstances. She returned to Ireland where her sole grandchild would attend Highcourt Boarding School in Dublin. She purchasing a small caravan in Wexford, living for weekend visits by her granddaughter. Surely she had endured enough tragedy, but in 1974 her granddaughter also died while at home in Kenya.

Her granddaughter had christened her caravan “The Ark” and this was what it became. An ark for stray animals and people. She moved her ark back to Mayo. Here a friend prevented her from burning her childhood sketchbook as she cleared away the past to engage more fully with the present. Her sketchbook was published in 1985 as A Donegal Summer, with a commentary complied from the transcript of tapes.

It told one part of her life but there was more to tell. The Family on Paradise Pier originated in taped conversations about her life that I made in 1992 when Sheila, then almost ninety years old, still enjoyed her alternative life-style in her caravan. We discussed the idea of my writing a novel based on her life one day and Sheila preferred a form of inter-linking vignettes, with some name changes and blurring of facts.

For years I hesitated to write this novel, knowing that I could never capture her unique essence or tell the essential truth of her story, like Sheila would have done had she been able to write it down. There was also the problem of what was the “essential truth”. Denis, her middle brother who emigrated to South Africa and was Sheila’s rock in later life, considered parts of A Donegal Summer to be inaccurate because – as a well loved and respected historian and member of the Donegal Historical Society who maintained a lifelong passion for Donegal and was deeply affected by Brian’s death – he remembered their childhood differently.

Whose truth could I tell? If Sheila’s impressionist memories were inaccurate on one level, a strict historian’s logic might create a reality that Sheila could not identify with, having experienced events on a different emotional level. I struggled with these dilemmas and with discovering facts – even from MI5 files – that contradicted Sheila’s memories. There is the further contradiction between fiction and reality. Novels have an eventual logic and make sense, whereas our lives rarely do. After two years work I had to start again, this time first and foremost as a novelist.

 

I took courage from a line by Sheila about admiring artists with the courage to create something new. The Family on Paradise Pier deliberately plays with aspects of reality. I changed the first names to show that the siblings were recreations shaped by my own imagination, but retained the family name (now happily re-established in Ireland) because the Goold Verschoyle children were too unique to be any other family. My wilful blurring of reality (where the famous communist suffragette Madame Despard gets burnt out by a Catholic mob several years too soon but the communist Jim Gralton enjoys his native Leitrim for longer than de Valera allowed) may frustrate historians. So too may parts played by Brendan and Kathleen Behan, Charlie Donnelly, Patrick Belton T.D., Charles Haughey and others, but they allowed me to explore the wider Ireland between 1915 and 1946.

Fiction can never tell the full truth, but perhaps it tells different, equally important truths. Biographies may not tell the full truth either, because our experience is funnelled through whatever version of truth we decide to construct from selected memories.

Sheila died in 2000 in Wexford. At her request her body was taken to Dublin by young friends not in a hearse or conventional coffin but in a plain wooden box lovingly painted in bright colours. In Glasnevin crematorium no clergyman spoke but Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar was recited before the body she had outgrown entered the flames to the joyous final chorus of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Sheila’s handmade coffin looked like a small boat that would cause only the barest ripple. Only afterwards do her friends realise how that ripple had spread out across her lifetime to touch distant shores and how it still keeps moving on its own course long after many of the seemingly great waves of her time have died away.

 

back to the family on paradise pier