Miss Carr’s, Mary Lou and me

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is not someone I have a lot in common with. I certainly don’t share her politics. But when I was approached recently by her biographer, Shane Ross, I realised I had shared a number of formative experiences with her. We both grew up in Rathgar – cue “leafy suburb” tag – we both went to secondary school at Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown – append “fee-paying” to that – both details that have been used as a stick to beat her with. What I didn’t know was that we also attended the same kindergarten school, Miss Carr’s on Highfield Road, Rathgar.

Despite these proximities, we never crossed paths (which meant I wasn’t much help to Shane Ross). Being a good decade older than Mary Lou, I didn’t overlap with her at either of these institutions, now both shut down. But all the same, I felt the chiming of connection with someone with an identical educational trajectory, at least as far as Leaving Cert. She went on to Trinity; I went to Rathmines Tech.

The Miss Carr’s connection was particularly powerful, maybe because the school was such an important foundation in my own learning life. Not least because of its guiding light, Miss Carr herself.

The school, called after its schoolm’am, now sounds quaintly Victorian. As was its location – a rambling Victorian red-brick house, two storeys over a basement. (Earlier this year, the house, long in private ownership, was sold for over E2 million. ) Despite her “Miss”, Miss Carr was a married woman and lived in the upper portions of the house. Her husband played no active part in the running of the school, and was a distant figure, always referred to – even by Miss Carr – as Mr Lee. Perhaps the school pre-dated Mr Lee, or Miss Carr was a proto-feminist, but she was indubitably the mistress of all she surveyed at 22 Highfield Road.

She was a warm, slope-shouldered woman with a soft face and a firm, carrying voice that suggested safety but command. She taught the upper classes (the school catered for children aged 4 to 7) while the two infant classes were taken by Miss Murphy. The diminutive Miss Doherty took third class. She did not wear the regulation blue nylon, chalk-dusted housecoat, but specialised in pert suits, cherry lipstick, heart-shaped spectacles and exquisite red shoes with high heels bringing a little touch of glamour to proceedings.

Even though the rooms were large, each classroom seemed filled to the gills. The two infant classes (Low and High Babies) and third class were in the basement and fourth and fifth classes shared the two light-swollen reception rooms on the ground floor with the folding doors between them. There was a lot of wear and tear on the fabric of the house. There was a certain battered quality to below stairs – chafed floorboards, scuffed footleafs on the doors. When the bell sounded and school was out, the drumming sound of the exodus reverberated throughout the house. Poor Mr Lee upstairs!

The joy of Miss Carr’s was its proximity. (For us just a few minutes’ walk from home.) It never acquired the institutional oppression of “school”; it was an extension of our domestic world. The hierarchy at Miss Carr’s was very fluid; once you were judged ready you moved on to the next class. But that didn’t mean she didn’t run a tight ship. Spellings were recited daily, tables chanted.

Reading was of paramount importance at Miss Carr’s and we were taught phonetically, now almost standard, but in the early 1960s very much ahead of its time. She kept a careful eye on slow learners. She spotted dyslexia before it became recognised officially. She gave extra tuition to anyone with reading difficulties. She knew the name of every child in her care, and knew about them. Whereas we knew very little about Miss Carr, not even her first name.

Thousands of children passed through her hands and she schooled two and three generations of some families. She maintained a keen interest in her past pupils – children who had left her at the ripe old age of six or seven!

Neither was her interest casual or disinterested.

The query about Mary Lou McDonald resurrected a childhood memory I’d almost completely forgotten that establishes Miss Carr in my personal pantheon not just as a committed educator, but as the ultimate Good Samaritan.

In the spring of 1970, nearly seven years after I left Miss Carr’s, my father died. Miss Carr appeared at the funeral, of course. Same bubble perm and kind eyes, and with the same pragmatic empathy she’d always shown in school.

Exactly a week afterwards my bicycle – a much prized hand-me-down from a cousin – was stolen from outside the same church in Rathgar. (Enough to put a child off religion for life!) Miss Carr, always with her finger on the pulse, heard about the theft. She approached my mother and said she’d like to buy me a replacement bike. She’d had a windfall, she said – probably a white lie – and wanted to share her good fortune. There was only one condition – I was never to know who was behind the gift.

A few days later a brand new Triumph 20 was delivered in all its glory. Powder blue with 20″ wheels and 3- speed Sturmey Archer gears, this was the coolest bike for girls on the market. I couldn’t believe my luck. For many years, my mother maintained the fiction of the mystery benefactor. I’m hoping that Miss Carr saw me flying around Rathgar on the new wheels and realised the delight I took in it. That bike saw me through into my 20s until, in the spirit of Miss Carr’s original gesture, I paid it forward and gave it away to someone who needed it more.

It wasn’t until Miss Carr herself died that my mother revealed the secret. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sorry I’d never got the chance to thank her – not just for the bike but for the security and homeliness of that early education.

Despite our political differences, I’m hoping Mary Lou McDonald has similarly fond memories of it.

Photographs: Irish Times

Travelling without footprint

This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.

I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.

On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)

There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.

The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.

As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.

Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.

I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.

Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).

The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.

But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”

Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)

Running wild has its downside.

“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.

Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.

I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.

Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?

A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit