GLENSTAL OR THE GREGORIAN PHASE
I had barely left Bray, when I received the visit of a Benedictine monk from Glenstal priory. In Glenstal Castle, near Limerick, the Benedictines had a renowned secondary boarding school, which rivalled that of Clongowes run by the Jesuits, and that of Cashel run by the Franciscans. They were looking for a professor of French. The Flemish refugee who had held that post and been employed there, had just left. Father Columba, who had come to visit me, was head of studies. The salary they were offering was, however, not very high. In addition, the post practically obliged one to live in Glenstal. Professors were provided with free board and lodging there. Thus they fully shared in the life of the boarding school, and indirectly in that of the monastery. It was certainly a post more suited for a bachelor than a married man and involved another partial separation from my family. On the other hand, it provided me with financial stability, rather mediocre certainly, but guaranteed, which I had not had for a long time. It also meant that Marie-Madeleine could remain in Dublin and continue seeing to the letting of the rooms to students and the running of the household in my absence. I would only have to abandon the preparation of the homemade pâtés, which in fact no longer yielded much profit. I therefore decided to accept the offer, in spite of its inconveniences, with only a commitment for the school year about to start at the end of September.
In the second half of September, I thus packed my suitcase once more and set off for Glenstal. Again I reflected that I was proceeding westward and moving closer to the kingdom of Brandan. I had to take the Cork train, change at Limerick Junction and get off at Boher, a short stop on the railway line.
The boarding school and monastery were situated in the middle of the countryside, not far from the village of Murroe, whose centre was comprised of an auxiliary post office run by the grocer, an old forge with hardly any work, a church, a pub and a few houses. The fact that Murroe only had one pub, instead of the three or four normally found in these small places, was due to Lord Barrington who had built the Castle. His concern was not to encourage drunkenness amongst the bricklayers, carpenters and artisans constructing the building. Murroe therefore must have the privilege, and the ensuing disadvantages, of being about the only village in Ireland in that position. It was these workmen and artisans with their families who founded Murroe. There must have been a small army of them, judging by the size of the building they constructed.
Though situated a couple of kilometres from the short stop of Boher where I got off the train, Murroe is nonetheless isolated in the countryside. Apart from the small town of Newport, in county Tipperary, the nearest city of some importance is Limerick, the third city of the Free State of Ireland by number of inhabitants. Even then it is a good twenty kilometres away. However, I would have no reason to go to the city apart from visiting it to look over the ruins of the old fortified castle of King John and the stone on which one of the numerous treaties made between the English troops and the Irish rebels was signed.
One of the brothers from the Priory was waiting for me at the station with the community’s van. We put my bicycle and suitcase in the space at the back. It was only a few kilometres to our destination. Having passed through the small village, we crossed over the picturesque stone bridge that straddled a small river, went through the gateway flanked by the empty gatekeeper’s lodge that marks the entrance to the estate, along a little road, over a kilometre long, lined with meadows, clumps of trees and some ponds, winding up towards the castle built practically on top of the hill. It overlooks a vast horizon gradually revealing itself.
At the beginning and in the middle of the 19th century, it was the fashion amongst members of the rich Anglo-Norman aristocracy that had become Anglo-Irish, owners of large real estate properties, to build magnificent pseudo medieval Tudor or Renaissance dwellings on their lands. This type of structure had become the fashion through the poems of Ossian, the Romanticism, Walter Scott’s novels and a real admiration for the Middle Ages and for chivalry. All of this had brought about a revival of Gothic Art. At that time, a number of churches, public buildings and universities, like those of Glasgow and Aberystwyth, were built in the same style. However, Glenstal castle had not completely conformed to fashion. It was obvious that its architect had wanted it to resemble more a Norman castle of the 17th century than a more modern building. This is the immediate impression on seeing it, massive and vast, on the summit of the last rise in the road lined with clumps of oaks and ancient trees. In spite of this appearance, however, it was not much more than a century old, as were the other dwellings of a similar kind, built at same time.
The castle had been built by the Barringtons and had become their family seat. They had also founded Limerick hospital, named after them. Originally Anglo-Norman, the Barringtons had settled in Ireland at the end of the 17th century. Cromwell probably brought them over with his luggage. They had started up a number of commercial and industrial businesses and had largely made their fortune owing to the creation of a leather foundry, and a clock and watch manufacturing business. Aided by their wealth, the British crown had conferred a title on them and, as frequently happens in similar cases, a number of them had branched out into the civil service and the practice of law. At the same time they created a number of charitable foundations in Limerick. One of the family, Matthew, who had become the solicitor and lawyer of the British crown for the province of Munster, had built Glenstal.
The main entrance into the castle, flanked by two massive towers, is narrow, with a type of drawbridge and a portcullis. The twin towers on either side of the entrance are topped with crenellated parapets and crowned with a machicolated projecting gallery for dropping stones on assailants. They extend on both sides into a long body of buildings in the form of ramparts, thus forming a sort of surrounding wall also with crenellated parapets and ending with a tower at each end. The whole thus gives the castle a fortress-like aspect.
Although the entrance towers are pierced by a very few tall narrow openings, the wings to the right and left of the buildings extending out from them are pierced by double arched casements, some of them with diamond-shaped window panes, thus forming quite large windows, though too high up to be accessible from outside. A larger corner tower more massive than the two entrance towers rises like a fortified dungeon. It also has machicolated crenellated parapets. On top of it is a narrow lookout tower with crenellated parapets and a lightning conductor. The silhouette of a stone figure representing a Norman warrior stands outlined on its summit and appears to be permanently on watch, looking out over the horizon. The extensive view from up there extends East beyond the large valley called the Golden Valley, to the blue-grey Galtee Mountains in the distance. The plains of Limerick stretch out to the South East, dotted with woods, fields and hills.
The castle as a whole impressed me as being grandiose and majestic when, accompanied by my guide, I first entered the inner courtyard. It has a little garden in the centre that softens the coldness of the stonework and has the door to the main buildings opening on to it.
Alongside the main entrance there is a smaller tower pierced with loopholes and over the entrance is an ornate roman archway resting on stone pillars. There are two statues on the archway, which my guide told me were of Henry 11 of England and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine. On the tunic of the latter, her name is engraved and on her stole the words “Cead mile failte”, the Irish welcome to all visitors.
My guide showed me into a small parlour on the ground floor, and asked me to wait there for the Prior who would welcome me. Thus it was that I met Dom Bernard O’Dea. We took to each other right away. He was the first Irish prior of the Glenstal Benedictine community and had been elected to this post in 1945 for a period of seven years. With an open, generous mind and a great simplicity, he was one of those people who never lost interest in my fate and that of my family. Many years later, long after my departure from Glenstal, he was, in 1975 and 1976, with Father Christie Crawley of the Carmelite order who was a student friend of my eldest son Jean, one of the coordinators, alongside my sons, of the Irish campaign for my release, when at the time I had to renew my acquaintance with French prisons.
Dom Bernard was already aware of my situation as a political refugee: the professor of French who had just preceded me was a Flemish man in the same situation. After a short interview, he had me escorted to the quarters I would occupy, telling me that once I had settled in, I should report to the principal of the college, Father Columba, who would give me the necessary information regarding my time table and the classes I would be teaching.
The lay professors of the college were provided with accommodation in a small building recently built in the midst of trees, a little apart from the castle, close to the equally recently built workshops for the school of Art. The latter was one of the first projects completed by the Glenstal monks after their arrival in Ireland. Our accommodation was on the first floor; the ground floor was an indoor sports centre for the students, mainly for football and rugby, and in the summer there was swimming in the large pond of the estate. The room that was allocated to me was large, situated just under the roof. It had a big window opening out onto green vegetation, a good-sized table, a few chairs, a washbasin and a narrow but reasonably comfortable bed. There was also a cupboard for clothes and linen and white wooden shelves for books. A very sober black crucifix hung on the whitewashed walls. The crucifix had a history: it came from the room next door that had been partially burnt by fire a short while before. The wood of the cross had been blackened by the fire: only a lighter part, a vague blurred outline remained of the crucified figure that had been there before. I still have it, as I brought it with me when I left Glenstal. It still hangs over the fireplace in the living room of my house in Cleggan.
The room with its white walls was like a large monk’s cell, undoubtedly not much different to those the monks occupied in the main part of the castle. I was not long unpacking my things: in view of the fact that I had to carry them, I had only brought with me the minimum amount of clothing and some essential books. The rooms of my colleagues who had not all arrived yet, were smaller than mine: they were also easier to heat in winter, which I only realised later.
I did not delay in reporting to Father Columba, the head of studies and principal of the college, the same person who had come to visit me in Bray. He had his office in the boarding school section of the castle’s main building. He gave me my timetable with all the necessary instructions including the prescribed books for the different classes I would be teaching. I would be giving a French course to six classes at the different levels that the students were divided into, with two or three quarters of an hour per week for each one, depending on their level.
This first visit to the main part of the castle, and other parts afterwards for meals and classes, allowed me to become familiar with the premises. Glenstal is actually built in an enlarged V shape whose point is marked by the massive dungeon supporting the watchtower. The open side of the V is blocked by a deep ravine, crossed with a bridge, and beyond that are the large terraced gardens, maintained by the brothers, and the monk’s cemetery. The Barringtons had lived in the main part of the castle. It faces south and starts from the corner Tower. Between the latter and the reception rooms is the octagonal shaped library. Passing through the main entrance under the watchful eyes of Henry 11 and his wife, you enter a majestic hall, paved with marble, leading to a monumental staircase and to the main rooms of the castle. Its high ceiling with strong exposed joists rests on the sculptured part of a stone cornice. A stone arch supports the cornice, with the whole resting on polished marble columns that have sculptured stone capitals on top.
To the left of the entrance hall is the large bright room that was probably the reception room before, and was now the refectory for students and professors of the college. Each professor presided at a table, changing every month. The warm coloured varnished wood panelling and the polished wood parquet floor of this majestic room softens the coldness of the stone walls. Large bay windows, five or six metres above ground level, facing south, are also arched in a neo-Gothic style, with radiating coving over them. They look out over the same vast horizon that can be seen from the watchtower. At one end of the room is the entrance into the library, passing under a Romanesque portal that reproduces the one in the old cathedral of Killaloe, a small town built on the Shannon, just before the latter’s estuary becomes coastal. This remarkable portal has three rows of superimposed arches, as was the practice with builders in the Middle Ages who used a multiplicity of arches. Geometric motifs of Celtic art decorate the portal. The ceiling of the library is a stone-ribbed vault springing from elaborately carved capitals. The columns supporting the vault rest on brick pedestals of circular and octagonal sections decorated with animal and leaf sculptures.
On the upper floors were the relatively small classrooms as the numbers of pupils were limited. At the time, the monks had only a hundred or so boarders and no day pupils. Also upstairs were the dormitories and the few single rooms reserved for older pupils finishing their secondary schooling. This is where Father Columba came every morning to wake pupils for daily mass with a harmonious ‘Benedicamus Domino”, punctuated sometimes with a tap on the feet of the recalcitrant sleeping ones.
The Abbey did not as yet have the imposing Roman style church with a number of small altars surrounding the nave, on the other side of the ambulatory, where the monks can simultaneously say Mass. The church was only built a few years after I left Glenstal. I came especially from Cleggan with Marie-Madeleine to attend the laying of the first stone in October 1951. The President of the Republic, Sean O’Kelly, presided over the ceremony, assisted by the bishops and ecclesiastic dignitaries from the region. Neither did the Abbey as yet have the large modern school building that is now on the South-East side of the castle. Much progress has certainly been accomplished since the opening of the secondary school in 1932 with only seven boarders. The existing chapel in 1950 was a provisional structure, quite large, in order to accommodate all the pupils together with the confraternity of monks and a few faithful from outside. One gained access to it through a sort of corridor linking it to the main building. The monastery itself was situated in the other side of the V and at the beginning of a third section on the other side of the twin towers that guarded the main entrance to the castle. It was comprised of low buildings laid out in a rectangle around a central garden with shrubs and flowers. The complex provided the monks with an area for contemplation that was completely separate from the school, conducive to work and meditation as well as to prayer. When I arrived there in September 1949, Glenstal was not as yet an abbey but simply a priory, directed by a Reverend Father Prior. According to the rules of the Order of St. Benedict, an abbey cannot be formed if the confraternity of monks is comprised of less than twelve that are solemnly professed, meaning having taken their final vows. Once that number has been attained, the confraternity elects a Father Abbot who is addressed as Most Reverend and is only answerable to the authority of a distant Primate Abbot, the Superior of the order who resides in Rome. The Benedictine community of Glenstal was founded in answer to the wish expressed before he died of Dom Columba Marmion, an Irish Benedictine monk who died in the odour of sanctity in 1923 and had become the Most Reverend Abbott of the Benedictine monastery of Maredsous in Belgium. He wanted to restore the order of St. Benedict to his native country, as it had disappeared from there several centuries ago. The Order of St. Benedict had been established in Ireland in the 12th century, as well as that of the Cistercians who also followed the rule of St. Benedict. The former were known as the black monks and the latter the white monks, and these colours have remained to this day those of the Breton and the Cornish flags: but in Brittany we also had the red monks who were the Templars. The Cistercians and the Benedictines had disappeared from Ireland, their members hunted down and massacred by Cromwell in the 17th century, or buried under the ruins of their abbeys, burnt down and pillaged.
It was the archbishop of Cashel, Dr.Marty, and Monsignor Ryan, ex Father Superior of St. Patrick’s college in Thurles, both of them friends of Dom Marmion, who carried out the wishes of the latter and re-established the Order of St. Benedict in Ireland. Cashel has always been a sacred place to the Irish. The wealth of ruins still standing on the summit of that mystic hill with its quantities of churches, crosses and medieval constructions, have made it an Irish Mont Saint-Michel. The oldest of the traditions relate to before Christianity, the hill was the domain of the Tuatha de Danaan, a race of sorcerers and magicians who had the power to become invisible at will. It is also said that it was on this hill that St. Patrick picked the three-leaved Shamrock that has become the symbol of Ireland, in order to help the listeners he was evangelising to understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Cashel was subsequently the seat of the Kings of Munster who donated it to the church. It was in that cathedral that the people of the area had taken refuge to escape from Cromwell’s troops. He had them all massacred: set fire to and destroyed the cathedral and the monastery around it. Atrocities committed in the name of faith that had no precedent in history other than that committed under the same pretext by Simon de Montfort and the French troops during the crusade against the Albigeois.
It was still possible during the mid twenties to acquire large properties at a low price, as they were difficult and costly to maintain. They had belonged to English landlords whose large estates had been expropriated after the struggle that gave birth to Irish Independence and later the creation of the Free State. Expropriation, accompanied by indemnities, only affected the land and not the vast dwellings, a number of which had in fact been burnt down and looted during the guerrilla operations. Glenstal’s spacious buildings, the little lake and the few hectares of valleys, hills and woods that surrounded it were an ideal setting for a new establishment of the Benedictine Order in Ireland. Around the same time, in fact, after the end of the Second World War, religious orders and the Church whose property, monasteries, schools and cultural buildings had been closed and confiscated by the French State at the beginning of the century, had also started to buy back their old monasteries with the help and generosity of their faithful.
Negotiations were therefore begun for the purchase of Glenstal, between Monsignor Ryan and the owner of the castle at the time, Sir Charles Barrington. In the preceding years he and his family had been struck by a tragedy that had affected them deeply. Their daughter Winifred who, for her goodness, kindliness and simplicity, had been very well liked by the people in the region, but had become sentimentally attached to Captain Biggs, an officer of the English forces of repression that were dreaded and hated and have gone down in history under the name of Black and Tans, because of the colour of their uniforms. It so happened that one night in May 1921, she had been in his company when an ambush was set for Captain Biggs by troops belonging to the IRA resistance army. He was killed and the young woman severely injured. She passed away that same night in Glenstal. Sir Charles Barrington and his wife had lost interest in the place, which held memories that were too painful for them. In 1925, Sir Charles tried unsuccessfully to sell it to the new Irish government. A year later, Monsignor Ryan offered to buy it and the affair was concluded, thanks to the business sense of the latter on one hand, and the generosity of Sir Charles on the other. Monsignor Ryan in turn donated the castle to the Benedictine Order of Maredsous in order to carry out the re-establishment of their order in Ireland.
The first monks arrived in 1927 and set to work. Glenstal Priory was therefore still attached to Maredsous Abbey when I arrived towards the end of 1949, and was their Irish branch. In fact the eldest group of monks in Glenstal who had been sent to Ireland by their order to start up the priory and then the secondary school, were Belgian citizens but nearly all of them of Flemish origin. This was notably the case of Fathers Winnock, Mertens, Hubert Jansen and Athanas de Conninck. Father Winnock was mainly in charge of the school of Art that he had founded as an annex to the college and taught his classes there. He was often away as he had become a master of Gregorian chant, and was frequently called on to start up and train various choirs.
“You have surely noticed,” he said to me one day, “that my name is that of one of your Breton saints. The first Breton, I think, to have taken the cloth of St.Benedict from the hands of St. Bertin, Abbott of Sithien Monastery in the Basque country. He came to Flanders with three companions, Bretons also, around the end of the 7th century, and Bertin put him in charge of building a new monastery in Wormhout, between Berg and Cassel. He later became its Abbott. He even gave his name to that part of the country as, until the French Revolution, it was called Berg-Saint-Winnock. Many Breton monks, you know, carried on the tradition that Winnock had started when they were forced to flee their country to find refuge in the Netherlands, at the time of the Norman invasions into Brittany, carrying with them their relics, manuscripts and precious objects away from their monasteries in flames. Maybe you are not aware of the fact that the relics of Saint Winnock are still preserved and venerated today in the church of St.Martin, in Berg.”
Father Athanase, French speaking in spite of his name and still a Belgium citizen, had been called during the war to serve as chaplain to the Belgian battalions that had been formed in exile in London. In Glenstal he was in charge of the general administration of the Priory. Kind, straightforward and easy to get on with, he is one those with whom I still continue to maintain friendly contacts. His sense of organisation and his continental experience led him at times to be surprised at the fanciful and easygoing ways of the Irish that prevailed in Glenstal as elsewhere. It was beyond his understanding that no prizes were awarded for studies but were given to reward outstanding sports performance.
Alongside this old guard there were all the new ones, mostly younger and all Irish: Father Columba Green in particular, director of the College, a calm and steady man. Many years later, he would establish the Order of Saint Benedict on African soil, in Nigeria.
In 1950, the two Tierney brothers, Mark and Philippe, grandsons of an ex French Ambassador to Dublin, were also there. The latter was a Breton, originally from Dinard. Their mother had married in Ireland. A third brother, friend of Dom Bernard, was a missionary in the Fiji islands. Dom Mark is the author of several theological works and was the historian of Glenstal. Father Peter Gilfedder who looked after sports activities for the college students, was more often in shorts and singlet than in a monk’s habit. Only once did I see him wearing black pants on the sports field, on the occasion of a visit from one of the dignitaries of Maredsous Abbey. Some others who still remain very vividly in my memory, Fathers Gregory Barry, Placid Murray, Paul Mac Donnell, Finbar O’Mahony.
My colleague professors were pleasant on the whole. We usually gathered together in one of their rooms to have coffee after the mid-day meal; but the leisure activities each one might have outside of classes were respected. We therefore did not see much of each other outside of that daily meeting. The two on the permanent staff, so to speak, were Vincent Quirke who was married and lived a few kilometres away, and O’Riordan who lived at the college. Both of them ended their teaching careers in Glenstal. The latter died there, a few years after my departure: he is buried in the monk’s cemetery. Kevin O’Nolan, who was then a bachelor, got married some time later and became professor at University College Dublin. He was professor of Classics and, in his spare time, liked to assemble small pieces of wood of different colours, putting together artistic compositions, displaying a real talent.
The separation from my family was certainly difficult: my timetable hardly made it possible for me to get away, except for school holidays. My modest salary would not in any case have allowed me to take the train every weekend. This insufficient income was mainly due to the fact that, as I was not in possession of a diploma given to students after a year or two of formal training at the University, I could not claim the extra salary granted by the State for that diploma. I was therefore only able to go home for Christmas and Easter holidays and for a few days in the middle of term.
I had in fact much work to do aside from my professional duties. In addition to my classes I needed to continue looking after the placement of young girl au pairs and that of paying guests in order to supplement my income. This involved much correspondence. My evenings were therefore fully occupied. On her side, Marie-Madeleine was doing the best she could in Glenayr Rd., looking after the two or three student paying-guests, providing them with breakfast and high tea in the evening, in addition to the room. However, it was hardly profitable and was only just enough to pay the rent for the house. Occasionally she would have the help of young au pair girls, especially French ones, who were unable to adapt to their new environment and to the isolation that their sometimes total ignorance of English condemned them to. Those from more modest backgrounds had the most difficulty in adapting. The house had become a sort of refuge where they would come seeking comfort to raise their spirits or seeking temporary accommodation. I would refer the more difficult cases to Francois Dausset in Paris.
I also continued to write articles for the Irish Independent under the name of Jean Basquin, which they had started to use, and I was paid regularly for them. I usually had the English checked by my colleague, O’Nolan. The links between Glenstal community and that of Maredsous had made it possible for me to make contact with two French language Belgian daily newspapers: Le Courier and Vers L’avenir, and send them every month a correspondence from Ireland based on Irish news. I usually signed them with pseudonyms. At the time, with strict exchange controls, payment for these articles was made to Maredsous Abbey and then paid over to me directly by Glenstal. Father Athanase was the intermediary and faithfully attended to these transactions. I continued this collaboration even after my departure from Glenstal, and only gave it up when the development of the Cleggan export business reduced my leisure time, and also relieved the worst of my financial worries.
The studious and solitary life I led in Glenstal was not a problem for me: solitude had often been my companion. I always appreciated being able to take refuge in it whenever I could during the hectic years before and after the war, the painful times of imprisonment and illegality. My room in Glenstal was my monk’s cell: in the midst of my work I still made time for prayer. The setting was conducive to contemplation, to study and to looking back. The environment helped the feeling of being immersed in history.
The memory of my country never left me. The mail and publications I received permitted me to maintain a distant contact with it. Martray’s “Peuples Bretons” came to an end: the last issue, the seventeenth, is dated 1949. It mainly covers the Conference of the European Regions that was held the previous month in the Palais de Chaillot. Joseph Martray and André Voisin, Alexander Marc and Doctor Brugmans had played a prominent role in the organisation of it. My old friend Landaburu and President Aguirre represented the Basque country. Representatives from Bavaria, Wallonia, Aoste and South Tyrol were there. Scotland and Wales were represented by J.M.Reid and J.E.Jones. Thus already there was the appearance of a return to the federalist strategy that “Peuples et Frontieres” had. It’s aim extended beyond the States, to the construction of a federal Europe of our continent’s Stateless regions and nations. This strategy would be one of the central parts of European politics that I was to take up again a decade later. Unfortunately this new political movement, which could have been taken up then, had not developed in Brittany as yet. The terrible weight of post war repression was still very much in evidence. On the other hand, the cultural movement was coming to life again and developing. Claims for the teaching of Breton continued to be heard. However, government circles did not pay much heed to those of the Bretons who had thought it timely to court the new French authorities. With the disappearance of the tough, direct and decisive opposition we had presented, there was no longer any reason to listen to them.
Frequently at nightfall, I would wander over to the chapel to attend Compline, a religious service that I liked. I was usually the only one in attendance with the monks. The majesty, gentleness and calm of the Gregorian chant soothed my thoughts and relaxed me. What can be more entrancing than this service too often neglected, which seeks to exorcise the terrors and unknown elements of the dark that takes over the earth? I had always been attracted to the order of St.Benedict, mainly devoted to spiritual work, aside from the daily period of manual work prescribed by its rule. It is certainly the one I would have chosen had I felt any religious vocation and had I not been completely taken up with my emotional life, my worries and the struggles of the century. I have always been grateful to those Breton Benedictines who, in the 17th century, had honoured Brittany and raised monuments to its glory; men like Dom Morice and Dom Lobineau with their “Histoire de Bretagne”, and Dom Le Pelletier with the “Dictionnaire Breton”. Thus they contributed in the most efficient manner possible to the perpetuation of our national values. They vigorously asserted the continuity of our specific identity as a people and a nation. They did so at a time when other historians or pamphleteers in the pay of the Kings of France were beginning to call these into question, in order to annihilate it later. The succeeding Revolution, the Empire and Republics in France carefully and with perseverance continued this work of negation and destruction since the suppression of our liberties.
The personal contacts and the classes with the oldest of my students – there were only five or six of them in their last year of secondary school – gave me also an opportunity to better perceive the differences in mentality, way of thinking and reasoning that existed between the Irish and the French, or one could also say between the Latin and the Celtic spirit. Unlike the French, none of them were attracted to abstractions and reasoning purely on thought, a temptation that I had not escaped in the course of my studies on philosophy. It would never have come into their heads to want to change the world nor, from the imperfect data available to us of the human condition and the spectacle of our society, to shape a new mankind The Irish have only used abstraction in their art, not in their reasoning. On the other hand, my students related to concrete facts and ideas, even though at times, helped along by their belief in the supernatural and their imagination, they embellished them a little. On the programme that year was the reading and explanation of a book by Henri Bordeaux entitled “La Maison”. I had asked them to write a short composition, extracting from the information contained in the book, the ideas and concepts of one of the characters as regards the teaching and education of children. They thought about it in earnest and consulted each other. However, they frankly admitted to me their inability to carry out the writing, even in English, of this sort of synthesis. This did not prevent them all from obtaining excellent marks in French in their end of year exams, for which Father Columba hastened to congratulate me with a short note sent a few months later to Cleggan, when the exams results were known. One of these students, John Kelly, later became a parliamentarian and professor at University College Dublin. Thanks to his talent, his eloquence and his strength of character, he made his name in politics and in the laws of his country.
Before my stay in Glenstal, I had only known the Ireland of the city. This was not the true depth of Ireland. Cities often change and distort mentalities and behaviours, even to the manner of reasoning. My few solitary walks or bicycle rides gave me the opportunity of making contact with the Ireland of the countryside. I was thus able to penetrate more fully into the subtle twist and turns of Irish mentality and way of thinking. I was no longer surprised when I asked the way, to have a description with a wealth of details of the roads I should not take, before finally arriving at the right one. It was obvious by my accent that I was not English. Therefore I was generally given the correct directions, even though they were lengthy and sometimes confusing. Had I been English I could have voluntarily been given incorrect ones. The war and ambushes of the national liberation were still not far off. This was the region that was the scene of Dan Breen’s exploits with his guerilla companions. I was also no longer surprised at the extraordinary curiosity of people, of their love of conversation and their natural kindness towards strangers. In the countryside at the time, one did not come across one of these very often. Was it not interesting to know by what roundabout ways and under what circumstances, this stranger’s path had led to you? The abundance of my correspondence attracted the attention of the postman. However, as I resided with the monks, one had to remain as discreet as possible. But in the encounters I had when walking along the little roads that by-passed Glenstal, along the ravines and woods that sometimes led me to the wild deserted waterfalls of the Clare river, I would be drawn into conversations it was difficult to cut short.
One day I was cycling from Murroe to Limerick Junction to catch the afternoon train to Dublin, when I had a puncture. I had no time to repair it and started walking, pushing my bicycle. The road was deserted. Shortly however, seeing my predicament, a motorist stopped.
“I will drive you to Limerick Junction,” he said, after putting my bicycle in the boot of his car. “However, I fear that you have already missed your train”. The train had actually already left. I would only be able to take the evening train that arrived in Dublin very late at night.
“I am going to Tipperary,” the motorist told me. “You can accompany me, I know someone who will repair your bicycle on the spot. Meanwhile you can have dinner with me. Afterwards, I will drive you back to Limerick Junction in time to catch the evening train.”
On the way, we had a long conversation. The motorist was a cattle salesman. At first, I do not know why, he had taken me for Scandinavian. I therefore explained to him where I was from and what I was doing in Ireland, why I had to come and that I was a political refugee. The conversation carried on during the meal. He seemed enormously interested. Like many Irish people, he was ignorant of Breton problems and barely knew that Brittany was situated in the West of France. He just knew that a common origin and culture united the various Celtic nations.
“I did not know that you also had ‘the troubles’ in Brittany, as we have had here. In any case, if some of your ‘boys’ have started fighting the French, you are surely on the right track”.
He used the word ‘boys’, the term used with a hint of indulgence by the Irish in general to indicate the I.R.A. fighters. There was also a touch of affection in his voice. It turned out that he knew Dan Breen personally. Practically all the Breton refugees had met the latter in Dublin who, with his son and daughter, had helped them in whatever way they could. I half expected my host to offer me a gun to help free the Bretons from the foreign control under which it suffered!
He drove me to the station at Limerick Junction in time to catch my train and to put my bicycle in the left luggage office until my return. Even so, he apologised profusely for not being able to drive me personally to Dublin.
In the autumn of 1949, after I had already settled in Glenstal, Marie-Madeleine received the visit of a Breton who had been looking for me. It was Marcel Samzun, fish and shellfish wholesaler, whose brother Lucien, his associate, had been for some years before the war, councillor for Belle-Ile-en-Mer, where the Samzuns were originally from. A third brother had married into the Marcesche family and directed a commercial enterprise of the same name in Lorient. Marcel and Lucien were the owners of fish tanks in St.Malo. They had the idea, shortly before the First World War, to set up contacts in Ireland that would enable them to obtain more easily supplies of the seafood and shellfish they marketed and that was becoming scarce along the Breton coast. Marcel told me later about his first exploratory voyage to the West coast of Ireland in the early twenties, at a time when the national liberation guerrilla, followed by the civil war, had bathed the country in blood. Insecurity reigned practically everywhere and it was not easy to travel around the country; the railway tracks were frequently sabotaged, coast guard barracks and hotels that were known to belong to English commercial interests were burnt down. Local authorities, those of the English and those of the Free State, were powerless to enforce respect for the country’s territorial waters. The Breton lobster boats, mainly those from Camaret, made the most of it: they put their pots down in Westport and Galway bay, sometimes even just a stone’s throw away from the coast. Owing to their initiative, it became known that there was a plentiful supply of crayfish along the West and South West coast of Ireland, though at that latitude it was mainly lobsters that were caught. Crayfish are in fact crustaceans of temperate waters, whilst lobsters are crustaceans of cold waters: however, the effect of the Gulf stream’s warm waters could still be felt as far as the latitudes of the Irish Atlantic, bringing with it the mild climate that generally prevails there. The crayfish undoubtedly followed it to reach these far-off shores.
The local lobster buyers, nearly all of them working for large English import companies, bought the few crayfish the coastal fishermen happened to catch in their pots at an extremely cheap price. They had no market for them. Nobody wanted them and no one would eat them. The local fishermen would sometimes even trade their few crayfish with Breton fishermen in exchange for bottles of wine or cognac. Also, local pots were not made for fishing crayfish but only lobsters. The relatively narrow opening and fairly tight-weave of their primitive basket work, made with light wood from local shrubs, did not allow for the entrance of crayfish that were at the time much larger than lobsters. Breton pots, on the contrary, were made of flexible wooden lathes from young chestnut trees, and were also used in the Bordeaux area and elsewhere to hoop wine barrels. The cylindrical body of the pot, shaped by two or three centimetre spaced lathes, was closed at both ends with nets stretched over them. As such, Breton pots were more specifically designed for the fishing of crayfish. In addition, their larger openings also allowed the entry of lobsters.
From that first exploratory voyage, Marcel Samzun concluded that the West coast of Ireland was a source of unsuspected and largely unexploited supply, not only of seafood but also of winkles, plentiful on the rocks and shores, and shellfish that also found no local buyers; the Irish would not then and even now dream of eating them. The essential problem that had to be solved was that of the eventual transport of the shellfish from the distant coast of Ireland to that of Brittany. None of this merchandise, which ought to be still alive when it reaches the consumer, could have withstood the long journey by rail and sea. Road transport was embryonic, on tracks or roads that were not maintained, and air transport, at the time, was non-existent.
The Samzun brothers therefore obtained a boat of the type already used by the people of Camaret, incorporating a tank in the hold where the circulation of seawater is maintained through narrow openings in the hull under the waterline. The constant renewal of seawater is essential for renewing oxygen in the water, without which it would be impossible to preserve the shellfish alive. As to the winkles put into sacks, they could easily travel on deck: it was enough to spray the sacks two or three times a day regularly with seawater. The boat also provided an opportunity to bring over from Brittany to Ireland, the pots necessary for catching crayfish or the bundles of chestnut wood lathes needed to make them. Thus it was that the two brothers’ business in Ireland had started up little by little. Bought in Ireland, the shellfish were then transported in the tank boats over a certain number of return voyages between Brittany and Ireland for the duration of the fishing season, generally from April to September. They were then sold from Saint Malo, after processing and storage in tanks of the Viviers de St.Malo depot. Every year the brothers would divide their time during the fishing season, one of them remaining to ensure the general running of the business, and the other going to Ireland to do the buying and see to the provisional stocking of the merchandise waiting to be sent to Brittany. It had very soon become necessary to organise a storage centre on the spot: the voyages made by the boat, still mostly using the sail and on frequently rough seas, could not be made with the same regularity as that of a liner.
At first, a number of large floating wooden tanks were built and moored in Inish Boffin Island’s harbour, situated about four miles from the small harbour of Cleggan. The activity of Cleggan at the time was centred around the mackerel fishing. Inish Boffin harbour was safer and more sheltered than that of Cleggan and the Breton boat could drop anchor there in all safety to carry out the loading.
It soon became apparent that it was necessary to have a more permanent establishment on the mainland, with greater storage facilities. Marcel Samzun had located in Aughrusbeg, a few kilometers west of Cleggan, a sea inlet that was quite deep, relatively sheltered, between two rocky outcrops, at the back of an old sanded- up pier that had once been a small creek where the local fishermen could moor their boats. The place was virtually inaccessible by land, as the road did not as yet reach there. He therefore decided to ask for a concession from the coastal authorities to establish a lobster pond there: the Free State authorities in Dublin had granted the concession. In spite of all sorts of difficulties, as sacks of cement had to be carried in on the backs of men for several hundred metres, he had finally succeeded in building a large wall incorporating two sluice gates with metal grills that allowed him to cut off a part of the sea inlet, between the old pier to the east and the new wall to the west, where the crustaceans could be stored. Several attempts had been necessary to build something sufficiently strong to resist the winter storms with its enormous waves that assaulted this new obstacle.
The business worked in this manner until the Second World War, with the two brothers dividing their time between St.Malo and Cleggan. They sometimes went to Ireland in their own lobster boats; but usually took the American liner from Le Havre that called in to Galway or Cobh on its way to New York or Boston, every two weeks or every month, depending on the season. This carried on until the summer of 1939. The last boat that the Samzun brothers used was the Ster Vras, which made its last voyage in September 1939. Marcel Samzun was there with his wife and son to supervise this last shipment. He had rented a small, uncomfortable place with two or three rooms, in Cleggan between the harbour and the post office. He remained in Cleggan after the launching of hostilities, during the winter of 1939-40. He suddenly decided to return to Brittany as soon as they heard of the German attack launched against the West. He succeeded in reaching Saint.Malo with great difficulty before the arrival of the Germans. He left the Lobster Pond empty in the care of his foreman John Delapp, who had built his house near it.
The Samzun brothers had a rival in the south of Ireland, Captain Trehiou, another Breton originally from Paimpol, who had employed the same methods and set up a fish pond in Rock Island, at the far end of the little harbour of Crookhaven. The two Bretons did not really have a problem agreeing on their purchase areas, considering the long distance separating the southwest coast from the west coast. Trehiou reserved the south and southwest and Samzun the west and northwest. Trehiou however had the tremendous advantage of being nearly two days sailing time closer to the coast of Brittany.
The war had practically ruined the Samzun brothers, just as it had also ruined other similar businesses. Once more the coastal activities of Brittany suffered deeply as a result of French wars and from the fact that, although France had collapsed, Great Britain continued the hostilities. The fish ponds of St.Malo only operated at a very reduced level: the burning down of the city towards the end of the occupation had dealt them a deadly blow. In addition, Marcel’s only son, had died accidentally after a vaccine injection, shortly after his return to France. Lucien had no children. The two brothers were already both well over sixty. They decided, therefore, to sell the business and their installations of La Pointe de la Varde in St.Malo, to the Leroy brothers. There could not have been a worse time to sell. Galloping inflation at the end of the Occupation and the foolhardy financial management of the governments after the Liberation, soon reduced the capital they had obtained from the sale to practically zero.
Marcel had retired to Plancoët, to a large bourgeois house that belonged to his wife and that she shared with one of her sisters: they were both the daughters of Maître Michel, the notary of Plancoët until he died. In spite of his modest, even frugal lifestyle, and also in spite of his age, Marcel was soon obliged to seek some other means of support. He had no pension. Thus it was that he decided to find some way of starting up in Ireland again with the activities of the Lobster Pond, of which he was the owner. His brother however refused to follow him. At an age when most men yearn for retirement, Marcel had the courage to attempt a new business venture through force of necessity, starting practically from zero in Ireland.
After a first exploratory visit in 1947, he realised that he could not attempt this on his own. He had naturally learnt that a certain number of Breiz Atao, as they were called then, a sort of collective name that included all Breton militants, victims of the post war year repressions, had taken refuge in Ireland. He had been in contact with my father, now settled in Saint Lunaire and practically his neighbour. The latter furnished him with more precise information regarding my whereabouts and how to contact me. At the time there was still a certain hesitancy in speaking of these outlaws and it was deemed safer to remain silent. Thus it was that Marcel Samzun came to visit Marie-Madeleine in Dublin towards the end of 1949. At the time he was organising the exporting of the small stock he had purchased in order to meet the demand for the end of year celebrations. Marie-Madeleine warned me that he was planning to visit me sometime during the first few months of the following year, before his return to Brittany.
I had already been back for five or six weeks, giving my classes in Glenstal, after the Christmas holidays when Marcel Samzun notified me of his visit. As he had no car, and owing to the train and boat timetables, I cycled to meet him at the small station in Boher. He explained that he was seeking an associate who would replace his brother and with him manage the business in Ireland that he was starting up again. His brother could be given a modest sum in compensation for the share that he still had in the Cleggan Lobster Pond, as the business was practically at zero. Also an unlimited credit period could be arranged for the payment of this sum. I was not in possession of any disposable capital myself.
The costs of my accommodation would be paid for by the business and a fixed sum, hardly more than what I received in Glenstal, would be paid to me each week as a salary. In addition, at the end of the financial year, 50% of the net profits would be ascribed to me. It was in fact, aside from the salary, the arrangement that had probably existed between the two brothers.
“I have absolutely no knowledge of this kind of business,” I told him, “and no experience in this field, mine being mainly administrative. Also it seems to me that for this kind of business one would need to have a certain technical knowledge that I do not have.”
”Certainly,” he replied, “but I will be there during the summer season to carry out the buying with you. As to the technical side of preserving, packaging and exporting the shellfish, you will learn that very quickly. But of course, before making a final decision, you will have to come and see for yourself what the situation is and the actual state of our installations as, for the moment, it is all rather primitive. Apart from the Lobster Pond, where I have carried out some urgent repairs and the small hangar that I built at one end of it, practically everything else still has to be set up and organised.”
It was therefore decided that he would contact me when he was back in Cleggan, probably in April-May for the beginning of the next fishing season and the first buying.
Samzun’s proposal was certainly worth thinking about. I was aware that all I had been able to do until now to survive could hardly be considered other than temporary measures. I had to restore the stability to our household that it had more or less lost, and consider giving some permanence to our life in Ireland. My mother and grandmother had often repeated “A rolling stone gathers no moss”. We had already experienced four years of wandering since my departure from the continent. Of course, I always held on to the idea deep inside me of returning one day to Brittany. However, for the moment we did not know what tomorrow would bring.
I had to try and restore a material situation that would allow me to live normally, free of the constant worries for the future and of the anxiety that had been my lot since my imprisonment by the Liberation government in August 1944. All of this, already hard to bear, had been aggravated by the forced exile I was compelled into, followed by my expulsion from Great Britain two years ago. One should never accept things as they are, especially if they are mediocre, nor avoid making the necessary efforts or decisions that have to be taken to progress and build a better future. This was true in my case, as it was also true for Brittany, whose survival I had identified with these past four years. Of all this I was deeply convinced.
Nonetheless I sought advice from various people. During my stay in Dublin for the Easter holidays, I sought advice from my old friend William Walsh who was in association with James F. Kent, another legal man in Dublin. I also sought the advice of Dom Bernard, on the spot in Glenstal. But although consulting other people can open up certain viewpoints, or draw attention to certain points one has not thought of, in the end the decision can only be made by the person concerned.
Shortly after the Easter holidays, Samzun contacted me again to arrange a meeting and my visit to Cleggan. The journey was quite complicated; from Limerick station it was possible to take a train to Galway in the morning, from where, after several hours of waiting, a bus took you to Clifden in the evening. In Clifden, Marcel Samzun would be there to meet me. I needed three days to make the return journey if I spent a day there. Father Columba kindly granted me permission to miss my classes on Monday.
Glenstal had begun to put on its spring finery and the spectacle was magnificent. Clumps of white, purple and garnet-coloured rhododendrons were scattered over the hills and fields where they looked like enormous bouquets, and the water lilies were opening out on the ponds. Azaleas were in flower in the woods, along the pathways, where little by little they replaced the primroses, the hyacinths and the anemones that flowered earlier. The elms, beeches and oak trees were now covered in new leaves. All of this together with the meadows composed a symphony of multiple colours with green dominating. Springtime sang with the birds, heralding new life again.
I brought very little with me and was thus able to walk around Galway a bit whilst waiting for the bus to Clifden. A few trawlers and merchant ships bearing foreign flags were moored in the harbour. On the other side of the Spanish Arch, where it was said that Christopher Columbus had come to inquire about the way before discovering America, that the Celts and the Vikings had discovered long before him, the Corrib ran into the bay, bubbling over the stones. A constant flock of shrill seagulls hovered overhead. After the small village of Oughterard, a centre for trout and salmon angling, where the bus made a stop, extraordinary scenery suddenly unfolded. I saw with surprise and awe the immense stretch of moors, the lakes, rocks and peat bogs that filled the horizon as far as the eye could see. A few clumps of gorse were still in flower: they were darker than the gorse in Brittany. The mountain that dominates Maam Cross, hard, rocky and practically blue under a low sky, then the Twelve Bens or “Twelve Summits” that the English call the “Twelve Pins”, as they do not know Irish, nor Breton, nor Welsh, block the horizon, the roads and the valleys, which they seem to be guarding in order to protect them from all intrusions. It was, on a far more grandiose and immensely vaster scale, the Yeun Ellez, Saint Michel de Brasparts, Le Kragou and all the moors of Brittany put together. Over fifty kilometres of this extraordinary scenery separates Oughterard from Clifden, a small centre that claims the title, capital of Connemara. A general hospital, a bank, a post office, two churches, one catholic the other protestant, a police station, a few essential shops and then of course, at least a dozen Pubs can be found there.
Old Samzun, as he would soon be unofficially called, had come to Clifden to collect me with a hired car. He did not have the necessary cash to purchase a car, even second hand. The few funds he had left in Ireland in 1940 had soon run out and their value had shrunk. All exchange deals at the time were practically forbidden in France and elsewhere, and foreign currency was only available in dribs and drabs. In addition, he had 600 pounds sterling confiscated by the English customs on his way through. Urged on by his need to put his business in Ireland back on its feet, he had tried to smuggle it through in little pockets sewn into his clothes around his waist. He had probably been too prolix in the explanations he gave. He had just barely been able to purchase a small second hand lorry of one and a half tons, which was essential for his buying in the fishing centres of the area, also for his transport and dispatches. He had started exporting the seafood to the Paris market by making the most of the stop usually made in Shannon by the transatlantic passenger planes that linked New-York to the European capitals. He was a pioneer in this field, just as he had been between the two World Wars when he discovered the Irish source of supplies.
A room had been reserved for me with a local family, about one kilometre from where the Lobster Pond was situated. Samzun took me there directly, as it was already quite late, and he had his evening meal with me there.
“I will come and collect you on foot tomorrow morning,” he said, “and we can continue our conversation then. The Pond is situated in the place called Aughrusbeg, but here we are still in Aughrusmore, that is, as you know from the Breton, the Big Aughrus. As for the church you saw earlier, that is in Claddaghduff, beside the beach of Omey where the cemetery is. In Claddaghduff there is also an auxiliary post office, a school, a grocery shop and two or three houses. As for the small Cleggan harbour where the main post office is, it is situated a few kilometres further, at the far end of a bay of the same name. It is from there that the mail boat, which is in fact just a small fishing trawler, leaves two or three times a week, sea conditions permitting, for Boffin Island where I had first moored floating tanks before building The Pond”.
The room that had been prepared for me by Mary King was simple but clean and the double bed was comfortable though a little damp. It was situated on the ground floor, which allowed one to go out, through the yard, to a small primitive structure where the W.C. was a wooden bench with a hole in it over a toilet bucket. An installation analogous to those that existed then in most of the Breton countryside and that reminded me of the one in Marguerite concentration camp in Rennes where I was imprisoned with a few hundred of my companions. There was no electricity or running water. A small paraffin lamp and a candle on a night table, a basin, a jug and a bucket on a small table in a corner of the room completed the furnishings. I was not surprised at this. Marcel Samzun had warned me of the rather primitive conditions of life in these remote regions of Ireland. Most houses did not even have the relative comfort of the one I found myself in. One had to relieve oneself outside, among the rocks or in the stable. Buckets of fresh water were drawn from the nearby lake or from wells, for washing, cooking and drinking.
The next morning, after Mary King had served me with a substantial breakfast, I waited for Samzun to come for me. We walked down towards The Pond. The road or track, as it was not much more than that at the time, with its rocks showing through, its chicken nests and loose stones, followed the contours of the large Aughrusbeg lake that was inhabited by swans, where the locals drew their water and their cattle drank. Primitive dry stone walls, similar to those in l’île de Sein, marked out the road and the fields, criss-crossing the bare countryside with short grass, and where neither tree nor bush could be seen. To the West and to the North, the road followed a narrow band of land, sandy at first, then rocky, that separates the lake from the sea. The Pond is situated lower down and could only be seen when approached from another track, around a hundred metres long, that I have since closed off with a gate. It was hemmed in between two rocky headlands facing west, and to the east by a retaining wall along a silted up platform, alongside a white sandy beach.
The weather was exceptionally good. There was just a little sea breeze accompanying the sound of the waves on the rocks. The sun was not strong enough to shroud in heat haze this vast panorama of sky, sea, islands, reefs and mountains that was revealed from the site where I would soon build my house. All the details of the landscape were outlined on the horizon as on an immense and inimitable painting. Light clouds floated in the sky like white islets suspended over the darker islands and reefs floating in the sea. To the west the deserted High and Friar islands, grey and green, outlined with white, preceded the open sea. To the north Shark and Boffin, past miles of sea one could make out the lighter coloured patches of the cottages. Further again, beyond the cliffs of Bofin and the lower part of Davilaun extending from them, Turk, it’s shape like the back of a donkey, there was Caher, flatter and lower, then Clare Island and it’s high cliffs guarding the entrance to Westport Bay. Yet further still and mistier in the sky, the highest points of Curraun and Achill Head appearing as darker patches on the light blue-grey of the sea. To the east, the horizon of land and beyond that Cleggan Hill, with the imposing heights of Mwelrea towering over it, extended by the Twelve Bens, was distant and practically violet under the immensity of the sky. One could also make out the mountain of Croagh Patrick, a nearly perfect cone, with the minuscule dot of the church built on the summit.
Within this immense view, distant vistas mingled, sea and sky merging, veering from slate blue to grey, depending on the passing clouds. In the foreground, the sea was turquoise over the sandy depths. I probably had before my eyes one of the most harmonious and beautiful views in the world with both sea and land stretching in front of me, unreal in splendour, brilliance and dimension.. This time I had definitely reached the kingdom of Brandan, those shores at the end of the world, the mysterious islands resting on the water and those secret unknown lands, full of magic, mystery and enchantment. Completing the analogy, two or three curraghs, miniatures of the one the saintly monk used to explore far off seas, floated calmly in the small rocky beach.
Realising that I was lost in admiration, Marcel Samzun remained silent for some time:
“Yes, it is all very beautiful,” he said, “But it is not always like this. Here, you also have to contend with the rain, the wind, the storms and the onslaught of the sea that in a few hours can destroy what it has taken you weeks to build. This magnificent view frequently disappears behind a grey mist”.
The Pond, in fact, was a large volume of seawater, captured between the old pier marking the upper part of the beach and the wall with two sluice gates, separating it from the open sea, to the west. It was certainly large enough to take several tons of crustaceans. A number of wooden tanks floated on the surface, as well as a curragh to shuttle backwards and forwards between these and the little concrete jetty. A primitive hangar, with a covering of fibro-cement, used as a workshop, garage and packing hall, completed the set up. Samzun had organised the building of a horrible concrete cube between the hangar and the road, as his living quarters. Built on land that otherwise had nothing else but rocks between the beach and the road, it spoilt the view terribly. This small block with a cement floor and a chimney, were the kitchen, dining room, study and bedroom all rolled into one.
“I was obliged to have this built,” he said, “as living in Cleggan several kilometres away I was unable to control the work done by the men who, though living nearby, have no idea of punctuality. I have found them still in bed or rubbing their eyes long after the time when they should have started work. This cube was badly built. It is nearly fifty centimetres narrower on one side than on the other, because of a rock that they were too lazy to avoid or blow up.”
It was not long before I noticed for myself that straight lines, dimensions and measurements were virtually unknown to our workers. The ‘more or less’, improvisation, untidiness or ‘it will do’ attitude reigned supreme. The use of a spirit level, or even a simple string with a weight on the end, were completely foreign to the unqualified workforce that Samzun employed at the time as there were no others. The walls of the Pond were no straighter than the embryo of a house that he lived in.
“Of course, I can not expect you to settle here with your family in such primitive conditions,” he continued. “It will be necessary to build a suitable house that I would in any case have been forced to do myself at some stage. There are two or three bricklayers in the area who have a certain amount of experience. We can hire them when we have extracted enough stones from the pink granite quarry not far from here in Aughrusmore. It is situated on land that belongs to my foreman John Delapp. You can build it according to your own design. John and his sons, who are more or less regularly employed by me, will extract the stones in exchange for salaried work that otherwise they would not have during the off-season. Meanwhile, until the house is built, for a modest price we can rent the cottage of a neighbour that is empty and that you will have to furnish with the basics. Living conditions and installations are so primitive here that we could easily incorporate these building costs in the business overheads.”
“Also,” he went on, “you will need a car. We cannot manage with just the one lorry that I have had to make do with until now, owing to lack of funds; you will need to go to Clifden or Galway, the centres for supplies, on a more or less regular basis. If necessary the car could also be used for the smaller transfers of merchandise. I have already asked the garage in Westport that found the lorry for me and whose client I have been for many years, to look for a decent second hand car as our funds would not allow us to purchase a new one.”
The proposed arrangement seemed honest and fair; if it was fair that in addition to the modest salary, as a partner I should receive half the profits the business could generate, it was equally fair that I should contribute towards the building up of the working capital and investments of the business. If most of these costs could be put through as general expenses, it was certainly one way of sharing the risks and expenses as well as the profits. If one wishes not to remain merely a wage earner, which was my case, one has to accept the risks as well as the profits. Should our agreement go through, therefore, I would become the owner of half the installations, the buildings and the concession of that coastal area on which the Pond was built. To draw up a new lease in Samzun’s and my name we would have to apply to the Irish State.
“Before giving you a final answer,” I told Samzun, “I would like my wife to come and see the place for herself. She has to be aware of the primitive conditions here that she would be living under if we decide to accept your proposals. As far as I am concerned these living conditions do not frighten me: I have known far worse these past few years. However I am not the only one concerned.”
Samzun, who was a man of quick decisions, had found he needed to purchase some planks in Galway.
“I will be able to find that also in Limerick,” he told me, “I will take you back to Glenstal tomorrow, which will save you a long and tiring journey. I suppose you will not mind travelling in the lorry. The three of us can fit in the front.”
Although this would involve a detour of nearly 200 kilometres, it did not appear to worry him. It is true that in Ireland distances are long between the larger towns. I was thus able to introduce him rapidly to Dom Bernard before he left me.
“He seems to be a sincere and honest man,” the latter said to me later, “but he is certainly more accustomed than you will be in dealing with people on the coast. He has a stronger jaw than you have.”
Strangely enough, Samzun in fact had the Fernandel jaw that the latter made famous.
June and exam time approaching, I was soon able to arrange to meet Marie-Madeleine when she arrived in Galway on the train from Dublin, in order to accompany her to Cleggan. Together we took the same route that I had taken alone a few weeks earlier. But the weather this time was dreadful. All the cataracts from the sky seemed to be pouring down over Connemara. From the misted up windows of the bus it was impossible to see anything of the scenery. As we went along the coast, we could just about distinguish a bit of bluish-green sea with a rust coloured border of seaweed on the rocks.
“You are out of luck,” said Samzun, as he met us in Clifden with the usual taxi.
He was probably as apprehensive as I was of what Marie-Madeline’s impressions would be, and of the shadow that this dreadful weather could not help but cast over them.
Mary King welcomed us again with her usual kindness. She was short and plump with a touch of stoutness. She always took great care with her appearance. She never went to Mass without a hat instead of the scarf usually worn by local women to cover their hair. Over the following years, we became better acquainted with her, and also her husband Tom, who was called Tommy Supple in order to distinguish him from all the others in the area called Tommy. That evening Tommy did his best to help his wife. He was accustomed to getting up at dawn, which is uncommon in the country, to milk his cows. However he would first take a few gulps of whiskey, without his wife knowing as she would be still in bed. Unfortunately, one winter’s morning, when it was still dark, he took the wrong bottle and swallowed a mouthful of bleach. He had to be taken to hospital: it had probably been harder on him to have been found out and to be watched more closely in future.
During that night after our arrival, however, the wind had chased away the rain.
“A little rain chases away strong wind”, Samzun said. He liked to pepper his conversation with seafaring terms that were current on the Breton coast. It was a glorious morning; the scenery was as beautiful, calm and splendid as when I had seen it for the first time. Marie-Madeleine has always been much more in tune with the century than me. For me the century has always been one of struggling to make ones way and fighting for a just cause. She is less susceptible than I am to the beauty of scenery. She knows that scenery cannot alone feed us. Although she is at times hardly more sociable than I am, she has a liking for worldly pleasures, the warmth of life and its fulfilment, all of which are inseparable from a certain material affluence. She was even more tired than I was of constantly living from hand to mouth, which we had been obliged to do, more so than ever now since political events had pulled down all my businesses, and dramatically changed our life by plunging us into semi-destitution and the wanderings of exile.
“If my husband is of the opinion that your proposal can help us get out of our presently difficult situation,” she said to Samzun, “I will come around to his point of view. The hardy life that we will have to live here does not frighten me if it allows us to be together as a family and if in the short run we can have a relatively comfortable and decent house. We must be able to live without too much delay in material conditions, maybe a bit more difficult, but not too different from those we had been used to before.”