|the scene of the crime - Harristown Bridge, County Kildare|
The poor - like love and crimes against love - tend to leave very little trace in history.
A novel built on hair needed an abundance of hairiness. So, in contrast to the thinness of their existence, eked out on the edge of the Harristown estate in the post-Famine years, my sisters are rich in torrents of hair. They may not have enough to eat, and they may suffer the stain of supposed illegitimacy, but they carry shameless luxury on their heads – 37 feet of it between them.
We Swineys were the hairiest girls in Harristown, Kildare, and the hairiest you’d find anywhere in Ireland from Priesthaggard to Sluggery. That is, our limbs were as hairless as marble, but on our heads, well, you’d not believe the torrents that shot from our industrious follicles like the endless Irish rain.
When we came into this world, our heads were not lightly whorled with down like your common infant’s. We Swineys inched bloodily from our mother’s womb already thickly ringletted. Thereafter that hair of ours never knew a scissor. It grew faster than we did, pawing our cheeks and seeking out our shoulder-blades. As small girls, our plaits snaked down our backs with almost visible speed. That hair had its own life. It whispered round our ears, making a private climate for our heads. Our hair had its roots inside us, but it was outside us as well. In that slippage between our inner and outer selves – there lurked our seven scintillating destinies and all our troubles besides.
In the dizzy narrow lanes of Harristown, I saw my sisters superimposed on the landscape. I didn’t just see them: I heard and felt their lived experiences. The smell of peat fires soured and tanged the air. The sound-track of my visit to Harristown was the keening of the slow crows, the rude kisses of the mud seeking to suck my woefully inadequate shoes down to Hell, and the relentless and seemingly malicious whispering of the rain. I felt rather than thought about the dark conspiracy between poverty and shame. Even if I hadn’t set out to write a sad story, I think I would have been converted to tragedy by the that trip.
To a child obsessed with reading, the tall figure who blocks Manticory's way seems like troll of the bridge. And the bridge itself is more than a physical place. In meeting that man, at that time, alone, Manticory is separated from her childhood stories, and dragged, by the hair, into a world where the architecture of her body renders her vulnerable to sexual predators.
No more could I hold back that man’s desires than the river could resist that bridge. He was back at my parting, sniffing like a dog and moaning like a sick person asleep. His arms snaked around to press me against his thighs, where something thrummed against my unwilling chest as if he swished a fox’s tail before the fatal lunge.
‘I’m going to have you now,’ he told me.
It was a pity to set such a horrible scene in such a lyrical location.
In fact I had a choice of two lovely bridges across the Liffey on the Harristown estate. One, called ‘the new bridge’ was built on the road from the Carnalway Church to Brannockstown. The other one, much older, is to the east, in a more isolated area behind Harristown House, a walk across the fields from Brannockstown. It is here where I set the incident with Manticory and her fetishistic troll.
In my mental map of the novel, the bridge stands between the hovel where Manticory lives with her sisters and the Brannockstown, where they go to school.
To get to that bridge, I had to trespass on the Harristown Estate, now privately owned (no longer by La Touches) and sturdily gated. Perhaps I acquired a little of Manticory’s sense of exclusion when the gates were not opened for me by the owner, as I had expected, having written in advance.
Maybe the lady did me a favour when, instead, I had to climb a fence, take a damp, lonesome tramp across a bald field and through a copse before I found what I was looking for just as the sun broke out for a solitary shattering moment.
The back of grand Harristown House looks down on the bridge. To my mind, there was a certain air of contempt about the grey stone hunched away from the bridge and fields. It leaked into the book, as did the strange sensations of standing on that bridge and feeling Manticory’s helplessness and the shame of her hunger in my own stomach.
Manticory’s troll, however, has business with her.
He wound his other hand around my hair and used it to drag me towards the trees.
My scalp afire with hurting, I whimpered, and flung my eyes around. The rat-grey back of Harristown House hunched in the distance, its blank windows indifferent to me. The lane was deserted in both directions, with nothing but eddies of the dust rising that we in County Kildare deem ‘fairy-blast’. It was, for a rarity, not raining, though the slow crows hung like widows’ laundry on every still-sodden branch. The light was dimming and the lowering sky took on a magical, churning quality, half of silvery gnats and half of my own giddy terror, by which the clumps of moss that beetled the parapet now seemed to commence to crawl and swarm. Below me to the right, the limpid Liffey flowed into the seven maws of the bridge, which mashed its composure into foaming ruin on the other side.
Harristown was acquired by the La Touches in 1768 and became the seat of the Kildare branch of the family in 1783.
The 1837 Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Ireland describes Harristown House as an elegant mansion with a stately Ionic portico, beautifully situated on an eminence on the right bank of the river Liffey, which winds through the demesne and is crossed by two stone bridges, one of which, at Brannockstown.
At one time it boasted an ornamental lake, but this was filled in at the end of the eighteenth century.
It was that vanished house I had to imagine because the original structure was gutted by fire in 1891 and then rebuilt to its current design.
Harristown itself is not really even a village. Now, as at the time the Harristown Sisters is set, it was a rural area sparsely populated. However, it was an electoral borough. Harristown once had had its own railway line including a railway bridge over the Liffey, built in 1885. The line closed in 1959, but, using my faithful railways map, I found the traces of the station. It has been said that the influence of the La Touche family resulted in the railway line being diverted conveniently into the Harristown estate instead of proceeding logically to the nearest town of Kilcullen. My sisters use the line, which also arrives close to the tiny cottage that their mother Annora refuses to leave, even when they become rich and famous.
‘The Master’ of Harristown was John La Touche. A small man with a neatly trimmed beard, the Master was very far from being an absentee landlord. Indeed, during the Famine, he took measures to reduce consumption in his own household, allowing no white bread or pastry on the table. His deer parks were emptied to feed the starving. He also supported Land Reform.
He succeeded to the property in 1844, on the eve of the Famine, and lived there for sixty-two years. His wife, Maria, was a novelist, an opponent of blood sports and a great letter writer. John Ruskin called her ‘Lacerta’, meaning lizard, explaining that she had the grace and wisdom of a serpent but was without its venom.
John and Maria La Touche had three children – Percy, Emily (known as ‘Wisie’) and Rose, who became the subject of John Ruskin’s obsessive love until she died in 1875.
In the original draft of my book, poor Manticory Swiney watches Rose La Touche living a childhood dramatically removed from her own. Rose parades around the estate on her white pony, Swallow, handing out religious tracts to the worthy poor, who would probably rather have had a gift of potatoes or Indian Meal without weevils. But as my novel grew in size, Rose La Touche was edited out. She’s there for me in palimpsest – living the life, rich with choices and dignity, which Manticory is denied.
The Swineys are, of course, invented, as is their cottage, but I imagined them as tenants of this small house on the Harristown estate, attending the local National School across the bridge in Brannockstown, the nearest village.
Annora, the mother of the Swiney sisters, cannot read. Shockingly, that is not shocking. I am indebted to the local historian Chris Lawlor for some sad and surprising statistics, contained in his marvelous book - An Irish Village: Dunlavin, County Wicklow. One Irish Catholic in four did not know their letters. The illiteracy rate in nearby Dunlavin was 22 per cent for Catholics in 1881, though 4 per cent for Protestants.
My trip yielded another surprise. My sisters, I discovered, would have spoken English rather than Irish.
National Schools were set up from 1831 onwards. The language taught was English. The Famine had in any case wiped out a million poorer Irish citizens, those most likely to use their native tongue. The Famine sent another million away from Ireland, looking for work. English was spoken more than Irish on the east side of the country in any case.
Chris delivered on promises to send on afterwards some examples of particular Kildare/Wicklow sayings and forms of address. His book was also wonderfully useful for a list of local fairies and witches. He agreed with me about the cognitive dissonance of otherwise ardent Catholics when it came to the horned Witches of Slievenamon or the Dunlavin Banshee, in whom many country Catholics believed as implicitly as in God. Annora is a model of piety but she cannot resist a fairy.
The Roman Catholic religion remained dominant among the poorer, less educated classes in Ireland, even after the faith was suppressed. With the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 there was a revival of the Catholic faith. It saw another surge in popularity after the Famine, during which the British/Anglican infrastructure had showed itself insensitive or indifferent to the plight of the poor.
The suppression of the Catholic faith until 1829 meant that worship was difficult for Catholics even decades after the ban was lifted. Many Catholic churches had fallen into fatal disrepair. It took years for the physical stock of the Catholic faith to be renewed in Ireland. The Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart and Saint Brigid in Kilcullen was not dedicated until 1872. Catholics had to travel miles to worship. So my Catholic sisters might have worshipped at St Joseph’s at Yellow Bog, or at St Peter's, Twomile House, or at the Immaculate Conception at Ballymore Eustace, or at St Nicholas of Myra built in 1815 at Dunlavin.
But in March 2012, I visited St Josephs and St Peters, wrinkling my nose. Manticory was distinctly not there. I went back to my old map of the Burial Grounds of Kildare. It took several encounters with farmer’s wives, before I was buzzed through a gate into a field where I found the ivied, roofless ruins of an ancient church with its own graveyard. Its desolation marked it as a Catholic place of worship.
My story ends in Venice – a town of four hundred bridges –in a palazzo on the Grand Canal. Despite the fame and riches that have bought her a new life, Manticory cannot leave her Famined past behind her.
It did not bypass my thoughts that all this magnificence was created at the beginning of the sixteenth century, when Swineys immemorial back in Ireland were living on oats and sleeping in windowless turf huts heated by roasted dried cow dung, only dreaming of the luxury of a thin goose at Michaelmas.
But Manticory’s Irishness is still a part of her. Reflecting on the strange events of her story, she remarks, finally:
They say that the Irish don’t understand irony, but in fact we’re teeming with it, like a head full of hair, like a head full of memories, like a moth in a mousetrap, like a sack of shame that empties itself into a book and finds itself redeemed.
The True & Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters was published by Bloomsbury on June 5th
The publishers have created a rich and fascinating Pinterest board about long hair and literature
Michelle Lovric’s website
Chris Lawlor’s blog is here