‘Has it gone cold or am I dying?’
There is no polite way to answer the question, asked by the wizened old man in the blazer. He smiles at me from behind oversized glasses. The sun has recently come out in Cobh. I’m sweaty from the long drive and hike up the hill and flushed with the embarrassment of asking so many people for directions. It hasn’t gone cold. So instead of replying directly to the question, I slow my step so that we can keep talking as he shuffles along the road. Together, we admire the view and I enthuse about the cathedral. He points out the boats on the water, naming some of them for me. And it’s a lucky encounter, as he’s lived here long enough to know Graham’s Terrace—the only local person I’ve met so far who can direct me. I could hug him, and maybe should, but I’m racing off, as too much precious time has already been lost and it’ll be dark soon.
After she returned from the 1937/38 Abbey Theatre tour of the United States, Aideen refused to go back to live with her father and sister in Ranelagh, or her father refused to have her there. Hugh Hunt, the English producer, put her up temporarily in his cottage in Malahide, as did George Yeats in the family home in Rathfarnham. Hunt’s housekeeper would not let an unchaperoned lady live under her roof, and George Yeats knew better than to get involved in an Abbey scandal.
Fred Higgins was keeping her out of roles on the Abbey stage and Boss Shields (her married lover) had gone to New York. Frustrated and broke, on Midsummer’s day, Aideen took the train from Dublin to Cork, to stay with her dead mother’s family in Cobh. From their home at 4 Graham’s Terrace, she could watch the boats coming in and out of the harbour and could plan her own escape over the Atlantic. A week later, she sent a letter to American producer Eddie Choate:
Nothing ever happens in Cobh. Even Atlantic fliers going astray land at Galway—but perhaps the German fleet will anchor in the harbour and that would be news.
Things didn’t improve and one Sunday afternoon, Aideen fled down to the village from the house and sent Boss Shields a cable saying that it was impossible to stay any longer and she had to join him as soon as possible. She explained to Eddie:
I’ve struck a bad patch at the moment! I’m here with my mother’s people and Uncle Dick arrived home unexpectedly and is very ill with neurasthania. [ … ] It’s frightful. I have to look after the child (who is a fiend) and do all the meals – sit with him for hours on end. He just stares at me without uttering a word. Yesterday I thought I was really going mad. I miss Boss terribly.
All of Aideen’s letters have a touch of the theatrical about them, but she wasn’t exaggerating when she described the stunning views from Graham’s Terrace over Cobh Harbour. The terrace is shut behind a heavy iron gate, and reached by a preciptious set of granite steps. There are five neat Victorian two-storey houses nestled into the hill; comfortable without being ostentatious, homes to private and respectable people. No. 4 has thick hedges and a slightly overgrown garden with a neglected wooden bench and an empty birdfeeder. Painted marine blue, the front windows show sheets and towels hung up to dry. The dog doesn’t take kindly to my camera, and I have to flee rapidly. No. 3 is up for sale, according to the Internet, so I linger there for a few minutes, hoping it looks less suspicious. My elderly friend didn’t know the name ‘Crowley’ at all, so it’s probable the house has changed hands many times since Aideen’s visit.
I can see a twenty-five-year-old Aideen here, losing patience with Uncle Dick and barking at the child she is meant to be caring for. Frustrated and miserable, she is sitting at the upstairs window, searching for solace in the wide expanse of the ocean. Jealous of her friend Frolie, who has Higgins’s ear and is getting increasingly good roles, and pining for Boss. When it is all too much, she puts the child to bed and declares she must visit her confessor.
In the June sunlight, with a stiff breeze coming from the sea, Aideen leaves the iron gate swinging and hurtles down the hill. At the corner of Harbour Hill and Church Street, she pauses to catch her breath. To her right, is the hill leading up the cathedral where confessions will soon begin. To her left, is the slope down to the square, where she can send a cable in the Post Office and check the sailings in the White Star office. More and more people are booking their passage from here to the United States, on the White Star line, and she has no idea how she’ll find the money to pay for her crossing but it must be done and done soon. Blessing herself, asking silently for forgiveness, she heads for the square. After the cable is composed and paid for, she visits the White Star office to ensure the timetables haven’t changed. Then she ambles along the harbour’s edge, watching the young girls with their sweethearts and wishing she had enough money for an ice cream, or better yet, a drink.
As the sun starts to slip downwards, she tramps back up the hill. At the intersection, she shades her eyes from the sun to look down at the harbour. When Father Peader appears on the path, she takes a sharp intake of breath and then gives him a bashful smile. Again she blesses herself in gratitude, when he passes without stopping. The child is asleep and Uncle Dick is snoring and wheezing. She crawls into bed but only allows herself a few tears before she falls asleep.
What was she thinking? What was Plan B?
Where could she get money? Where could she find work? Did she still love Boss? Did Boss still love her?
The more I’ve gotten to know Aideen, the more I realise she didn’t tolerate such questions.
There was no Plan B. There was only New York.
God must have heard her prayers, or at least Broadway producer Eddie Choate did. The next morning the postman brings a contract from the New York producer with the promise of a role in Paul Vincent Carroll’s new play Kindred and an advance of her fee. She kisses the contract and doesn’t care if the child sees her glee. Of course, there is no secured production and no guaranteed role, but this is enough (as Eddie knows) to satisfy the Customs people. At tea time, she will tell the family. Then, she’ll pack her bags and wave goodbye to Graham’s Terrace from the deck of the ship.