‘For the last fifty years of my life I have lived in a cottage – a cottage hanging above Ardmore bay, above the village and the Catholic church, its east window lighted over the sea on winter evenings. Beyond my cottage one of the finest round towers in Ireland reaches up to the sky above the ruined and beautiful church and monastery at its foot.’ Part of novelist Molly Keane’s charm is her ability to exaggerate to just the right extent. In this instance, the length of time she lived at Dysart in Ardmore, County Waterford has been amplified to half a century. In fact, she remained in the house for forty-four years, from 1952 until her death at the age of 91 in 1996, and as a result Dysart is replete with memories of its former chatelaine.
Anyone interested in Ireland’s historic houses and their near-universal decay during the course of the last century will be familiar with the work of Molly Keane. In the words of my clever friend Polly Devlin, she ‘observed and preserved…the sounding of the tocsins and the minutiae of the last days of the Irish Raj,’ a surveillance which had begun back in 1800 with the publication of Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. Molly Keane was successor to Edgeworth, just as she was to Somerville and Ross, and like these earlier writers she combined keen scrutiny with black humour, fully aware she was chronicling the decline and fall of her own people but refusing to be cast down by the prospect. As her older daughter Sally has commented, ‘Her long life almost spanned the century. She has to be the last of the Anglo-Irish writers, because she bore witness to the dying away of her world.’
I never had the good fortune to meet Molly Keane but know well both Sally and her younger sister Virginia who now has charge of their mother’s house in Ardmore. This is a charming coastal town which has been a favourite holiday resort in the area since the 19th century. As already mentioned, it became the last stop in the peregrinations of Molly Keane, born Mary Nesta Skrine in County Kildare in 1904. When she was aged six her family moved to Ballyrankin House, County Wexford; in July 1921 the building and its contents were burnt out by members of the IRA and its owners forced to walk to the nearest town in their nightwear. Despite this Molly’s father Walter declared, ‘I would rather be shot in Ireland than exiled to England’ and remained in the country until his death nine years later. By that time, his daughter was well established as a writer.
Molly’s first novel, The Knight of Cheerful Countenance, came out in 1926; she was later rather disparaging about it but I find the book admirable and already full of the themes that recur in her later work, not least love of the Irish countryside and of hunting. It was because of her involvement with the latter that she published the majority of her books under the pseudonym of M.J. Farrell, the name borrowed from a pub she regularly passed on her horse. ‘For a woman to read a book, let alone write one was viewed with alarm,’ she later explained. As for her own books, ‘no-one connected them with me. I didn’t want to be recognised as a writer. I only wanted to be good in the hunting field and to be popular at hunt balls. I was so starved of fun when I was young, and I loved fun so much.’ Her books – and the plays she wrote with John Perry – provided her with that fun, and with much-needed income both before her marriage and during her long widowhood. In 1938 she married Bobby Keane but he died only eight years later after what was supposed to be a routine operation in London.
During her marriage and for the first years of widowhood, Molly Keane lived at Belleville outside Cappoquin, a house dating from around 1830. The drawing room, Sally remembers, ‘had a 1930s flavour. It was sort of glamorous, with plumped cushions and a cocktail shaker in the corner. It was decorated in peaceful shades of pale grey, dark blue and rust colours. It had tall windows, crossed with thin glazing bars, facing to the south.’ Above are a couple of photographs from that period, the first showing her working in the garden with Belleville behind, the second of Molly with her daughters Sally and Virginia as small children. However for various reasons, not least monetary, by 1952 she was obliged to move and hence settled into a much smaller property at Ardmore. This was the same year Treasure Hunt her last novel under the name M.J. Farrell appeared; it would be almost three decades before a new book written by her was published. In 1961 Dazzling Prospect, her final play co-authored with John Perry, received such poor reviews from London critics that she gave up writing altogether.
Instead she concentrated on her children, and on her house in Ardmore. Sally has written that gardening grounded her mother, ‘It was very important to her. She loved plants and digging. It assuaged the depressive moods of her artist’s temperament. Its imagery pervades her work and is part of a wider, intense response to the natural world of the Irish landscape…’ The garden Molly Keane created at Ardmore is still there, now tended by Virginia, and so too is the kitchen where, Sally believes, she spent some of her happiest times. ‘She delighted in domesticity and was brilliant at it. For a long period, she stopped writing, and I think she replaced it by cooking. She cooked with the precision and care she spent on words, balancing sweet and sour, and creating subtle unique flavours.’
The story of Molly Keane’s rediscovery is well-known. In 1981 at the age of 77 and under her own name she published Good Behaviour which was short-listed for the Booker Prize and led to all her earlier books being reprinted and their author receiving the credit she was due. Molly Keane went on to write two further, equally acclaimed novels, Time after Time and Loving and Giving. She always liked to write in her own bed, seen above; the lower of the two photographs (a film still courtesy of RoseAnn and Catherine Foley) shows her working away in self-same bed with her dog Hero (she called him ‘My Hero) tucked under an arm.
The special charm of Dysart is that it remains imbued with Molly Keane’s spirit; aside from her novels nowhere else will you be better able to experience the character of this clever, witty, plucky woman. Virginia is very much her mother’s daughter and forever finding ways to encourage greater use of the house, as a writers’ retreat, a centre for creative writing and a venue for one-off events, such as those presented by her own husband, film historian Kevin Brownlow. You can find out more about all these occasions on http://www.mollykeanewritersretreats.com. I will close with some lines written by the Cappoquin-born poet Thomas McCarthy who knew Molly Keane well and is a terrific supporter of Virginia’s endeavours: ‘When you lift the gate and walk down the steps into Molly Keane’s house in Ardmore you know you are coming down into a creative lair, into an eagle’s nest, into a writer’s heaven. I descend into a pillow of voices, an atmosphere that is thick with the scent of white roses, with the memories of some of the loveliest days of my youth. There is old Brigadier FitzGerald before me, happy to have another lost novel of Molly’s in his hand, impatient for Molly’s signature, impatient to get down to a right good gossip about the residents of the Blackwater valley; there is Hurd Hatfield, always hovering, ready to be charming or morose (depending upon whether a visitor remembers who he is), there is Hero, yapping, sniffling in Molly’s arms. But when you enter this house it is not just the place of personal memory: it is the house as a writer’s working space, the house as workshop where the work gets done. Here is a place to come to in County Waterford if you want to attend to the writer’s task.’