My Grandfather’s House

By James Leahy


‘Think of us then,’ my mother said, ‘in our summer frocks. Evelyn and me. I can’t believe it,’ she said, ‘we were so young. Out on the South Pier, with dear little Billy Pug. Those lovely summer evenings. I just can’t believe it,’ she said, ‘it’s so long ago.’

The day after we arrived in Dublin, Audra and I drove down and walked out on the South Pier. It was a blustery autumn morning, not a sunny summer’s evening. Leaden-grey rain clouds chased each other across the dull white blanket of a sky. We tried to think of them as they were then: Dr. Bennett’s two beautiful daughters, walking their dog before dinner, whilst at home their father held his surgery. And we sat and watched the sea for a bit, the wind ruffling our hair, bringing the rain and taking it away again. Then we walked back, in search of lunch.

Of course, all the time we were taking photographs: of each other, of the town itself, of the harbour, of the orderly lines of yachts, drawn up on parade in the club moorings, of the car ferry (even then you could still see notices referring to it as the ‘mail boat’). We pointed our cameras along the ‘metals’; at a man in jeans and a blue denim jacket walking his boxer; at three old ladies, white-haired, dressed in black, younger, probably, than my mother and Aunt Evelyn, yet looking so much older; at the cinema which had risen from the ashes of the ballroom whose name it bore; at the town hall, and inside it; at the railway terminal that is now a restaurant.

We enjoyed our lunch: beef and a bottle of sound red wine, consumed at leisure in the settled respectability of a comfortingly old-fashioned hotel dining room.

The Rotarians’ weekly lunch occupied a large table at one end, two or three couples at smaller tables dotted around the room. Would any of their parents, I wondered, have remembered my mother? Or my aunt? With affection, or hostility? Or with the deference seemingly due in those days even to transient and very junior hangers-on of the ascendancy?

Suddenly, and with a shock, I remembered my own age. The pillars of the community across the room were not old men. They were my generation or younger; their parents probably younger than my mother, certainly younger than my aunt. Too young to have known them, or to have served them. Too young to remember them.

Coffee, cognac, then, street plan in hand, we went in search of my grandfather’s house. Well, of course, it was never his house really. In those days one rented, ‘took’ a house for some weeks, or months, or years. Quite quickly, with a little effort, and the co-operation of competent servants, it became ‘home’. And so ‘Greystones’ had been my grandfather’s house, ‘our house’ to those teenage girls in summer dresses we’d tried to picture out on the pier. Their Daddy had been master in that house, a kind and loving father who could play the thin-lipped tyrant should anyone return a moment late for dinner, and thus disrupt his universe.


We wandered through the side-streets, tensing with anticipation as we drew near, then a momentary stab of disappointment: a row of dirty, decrepit, derelict buildings.

‘I hope it’s not here,’ Audra said. ‘We can’t show them pictures of these. They’d just get too depressed.’

‘I don’t think we’re quite there yet,’ I said.

We weren’t. Beyond the derelict houses, on one corner of the square, hedges neatly trimmed, paint-work gleaming, name spelt out in wrought-iron letters on a wrought-iron gate, quietly prosperous, stood ‘Greystones’. I can see it before me now: cream walls, grey lintels, white window-frames, red door with a shining brass handle and knocker.

As I put that photograph down and pick up another, more details emerge: on the gate, beneath the name of the house, a well-polished brass plate: ‘The Eastern Area Tourist Society Ltd.’

‘Perhaps we can see inside,’ Audra said. I was reluctant, did not wish to intrude.

‘There’s no harm in asking,’ Audra urged. ‘After all, it’s only offices, not a private house.’ I followed her through the gate, along the path, up the steps to the front door. She clasped the brass knocker, rapped firmly on the door: ‘I’m very sorry to trouble you, but this is my husband. His mother and grandfather used to live here. I suppose we couldn’t take just a brief look inside?’

The woman at the door was polite, but the cold formality of her responses seemed forced, as if she had been deeply disconcerted by Audra’s request, and didn’t want us to notice this: ‘My superior’s out to lunch. He’s the only one could give you permission. I’m sorry.’

‘When do you expect him back?’

‘I don’t know. It might be another hour or so. It might be any time.’

‘What about the garden? Could we take some pictures in the garden? To show his mother?’

‘I’m sorry, I’m afraid I don’t have the authority.’

I felt I should at least say something: ‘But you wouldn’t mind?’

‘I’m sorry, I can’t give you authority.’

I tried to turn it into a joke: ‘But if you saw us taking pictures, you wouldn’t go and call the police or anything like that, would you?’

No response to this faltering attempt to shift matters to a less formal plane: ‘My superior’s the only one who can give you permission. I’m sorry. I’m not sure when he’ll be back.’

Audra, a trifle sourly: ‘I see. Thank you. I’m sorry to have troubled you.’

The door closed and we retreated down the path, not without surreptitiously clicking our cameras. Audra was still sour: ‘That’s the sort of reception you’d expect in London, not over here!’

‘I know it wasn’t exactly “Ireland of the Welcomes”, but I guess we would have been intruding.’

‘You’re much too British about this sort of thing!’

Once outside the gate, more photographs: of ‘Greystones’, the gate, the brass plate on the gate, me standing beside the gate, then, out of the square and down towards George Street, Audra standing in front of the house with the two flights of steps where my cousin was born. Then I put in a new roll of film, slides this time.

‘I’ll bet her boss was at the Rotary lunch,’ Audra said as we set off in search of other landmarks in my family history. ‘Probably won’t be back this afternoon.’

‘Did you pick up all the photographs?’ Audra said as I came in one evening, about ten days after our return to London.

‘Yes, why?’

‘I’ve been looking at them, and they’re not all there.’

‘Have you looked at the slides?’ I said.

‘I wasn’t shooting slides,’ Audra said. ‘There’s some I distinctly remember taking, and they’re not there. All the ones of your grandfather’s house.’

‘I’ll check them properly when I have a moment,’ I said.

‘I hope they turn up,’ Audra said. ‘Your mother’s going to be so disappointed if they don’t.’

I looked through all the prints; I looked at all the slides. There was only one picture of my grandfather’s house, a distant shot, from an oblique angle which made it barely recognisable. I checked the edge numbers of the negatives: a dozen were missing, from two separate rolls of film, shot in two different cameras.

That’s what I emphasised when I went back to the camera shop: two separate cameras used by two different people; two different rolls of film: ‘That’s what I don’t understand,’ I said.

‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said the man in the shop, ‘I’ll get on to them straight away.’

That evening, my mother called. After we’d chatted a bit, about Aunt Evelyn’s hip, her deafness, and her depressions: ‘Have the photographs of your holiday come back yet?’

‘No, not all of them,’ I prevaricated. ‘Why?’

‘Well, it’s such an odd coincidence. We’ve been thinking about ‘Greystones’ all day. It’s rather exciting. What d’you think happened?’

‘I don’t know. What?’

‘We’re going to be on the radio.’

‘What do you mean? When?’

‘Well, this morning, just as Evelyn and I were getting ready to go out for our pensions, a man drove in. Such a nice smart car! We had no idea who it was. Well, to cut a long story short, he wanted to know if it was correct we’d lived in Ireland. “What do you want to know for?” Evelyn said.’

By now my mother was in full flow, as always happy when there was a tale to tell: ‘It seems they’re doing research for a radio programme. He said it would be like something they did some years ago, about India. I think he said it was called Tales from the Raj.’

Plain Tales from the Raj,’ I interjected, ‘Kipling.’

‘If you say so, dear! Anyway, this will be full of reminiscences about the old days. Set in Ireland. They’re looking for people to interview. Evelyn took over, of course: “Can’t be many left!” she said.’

‘You know what she’s like once she gets started’, my mother continued, ‘the poor man couldn’t get a word in edgeways... She really gave him the works. All about Daddy, and Kingstown, and the War, and the Troubles. All about where we used to live... Seeing Sinn Fein-ers through the window, when they were burying arms in the grounds of Manor House. Then how she was held up at gun point when they came looking for Jack one evening whilst he was on duty with his regiment, and how she recognised them despite their masks because she knew their voices! Then Jack saying I shouldn’t be allowed to go to dances with the Black and Tans, that they were a disgrace to the British uniform!’

‘This’, I was able to think wryly as my mother started to run out of steam, ‘from a Dublin Protestant!’

‘I thought we were never going to get away!’ she concluded.

‘What did the man say?’ I asked, ‘Was he taping all this?’

‘No. Apparently it was only a preliminary interview. But he told Evelyn he’d really enjoyed it, and was looking forward to seeing us again. I wonder how they got hold of our names?’

‘Evelyn was thrilled.’ My mother paused again: ‘Funny how much better her deafness is when she’s really interested in something.’

‘Well, I guess that’s always the way. Anyway ...’

We talked a bit longer. Then I handed the receiver over to Audra. It was clear from her brief comments, interspersed with long periods of silence, that the saga was being told all over again.

‘I think somebody’s checking up on us,’ Audra said as she put the ‘phone down.

‘It does seem rather spooky,’ I said, not sure what to think.

‘I knew there was something funny about the way that woman spoke… As if she had something to hide.’

Audra was adamant: ‘No ordinary business would’ve been so defensive.’

I called the camera shop each morning. On the third morning, before I’d finished saying who I was: ‘I’ve got your prints. They came in this morning.’ The man sounded really pleased.

‘Oh good,’ I said, ‘I’ll try and get in sometime today.’

I didn’t even ask about the negatives, thought I’d leave that until I saw what actually had turned up.

I needn’t have worried. This time everything was there, in a cardboard folder, both prints and negatives. Stapled to the folder a Kodak compliments slip, and, hand-written with a ball-point pen, the date and message:

‘Re telephone conversation today,

‘We enclose prints as requested

‘Our apologies for any delay.’

Most of the prints had come out pretty well, so I had two extra sets made, to give to my mother and Aunt Evelyn at Christmas. They were our last present to her. She went to bed on New Year’s Day, and didn’t get up again.

She often asked whether the man from the BBC had been in touch... Said she’d make a point of coming downstairs when he came back to do the interviews.

All that happened a decade ago. My mother has now forgotten all about the man from the BBC. Her mind is now back in ‘Greystones’, and much of the time I’m no longer her son, but one of the young men who used to come calling on Dr. Bennett’s beautiful daughters. Sometimes I fantasise that, amongst the imaginary figures she says she’s been talking to on the stairs, she’ll find the current occupants of my grandfather’s house. Perhaps one day she’ll be able to tell me what they’ve been doing there, how they traced us, and what made their relations with Kodak so good.

James Leahy is a film historian, critic and scriptwriter.