There are blog posts that are carefully crafted and left for a few days to ‘settle’ before publishing. There are also posts that the blogger types late at night, unable to sleep for the ghosts circling and the burning passion for a writer and kindred soul just discovered. I’ve been ill this week with a bad headcold. I’m possibly delirious from fever and over-consumption of codeine and ice cream. Bear with me. There are more posts to come on Una Troy and her home town of Bunmahon. This is a fragment of a feverish dream…
In the well-kept caravan park in Bunmahon, on the coast of Waterford, some of the mobile homes are still decked out with Christmas lights when I visit in mid-January. The park isn’t visible from the beach, but from the top of the sand dunes, the entire village is set out: caravan park; playground; small shop; chipper. The beach is small, not as dramatic as Kerry or Cork, but a perfect half-moon shape encircled by two jagged arms of rocks.
Climbing the steps from the beach, I see the village is to my left and on my right is a hill with a neat terrace of houses (Osbourne Terrace) and a renovated Church of Ireland (now a heritage centre). Further out the road past the church, amid fields and marshy land, are the remnants of a grander house, now in ruins. There are great pictures of that house on line.
It’s easy to picture Bunmahon at the height of summer. I can see sandy feet tracked through the playground, ice cream spilt on the path, small decks packed with barbecues and lines of swimming togs in the breeze. It’s a stroll from the caravan to the pub up the town, and minutes’ drive from Dungarvan if shopping is needed.
A pleasant place for a summer break. But to holiday here, I’d imagine, it’s useful to forget the murky history.
Una Troy (or her pen-name, Elizabeth Connor) was drawn back here, time and time again. In one sense, her connection to this village was romantic: she holidayed here as a child, fell in love with a local, had her children here. But there’s more to Troy than romantic notions. Her prose and her drama have layers of dark, intense emotion beneath a surface propriety. The contrast between the pretty simplicity of Bunmahon and the town’s gritty past is an ideal setting for her prose and drama.
Bunmahon was part of the Irish copper mining boom of the 1800s, with lead, silver but particularly copper being mined there from 1827 to 1877. The main street of the village is lined with the stone fronts of the miners’ homes from that time. These were “the lucky ones”, a sign explains; most of the miners lived in a shanty-town in the sand dunes. The terrace of houses by the church were the homes of the men in management positions, and the grand house further out belonged to the official ‘Mine Manager’. The population of the small town swelled to 2000 in the early 1800s, before many were wiped out by famine in the 1840s, mining accidents or emigration to Butte, Montana, where the trade was more lucrative. By the 1880s, it was a desolate place, full of poverty and disease.
When Una Troy started visiting here with her family during the summer months in the 1920s, copper mining had grinded to a halt but other kinds of dangerous industry were ongoing. The creamery was destroyed during the War of Independence. A postman went missing and many believe his body was disposed of down a mine shaft. It was thought he’d been some kind of informant during the Civil War.
I can see a teenage Una Troy swimming here during the early 1920s, clambering out of the water and trekking up the beach, shivering and laughing. She was joined by her sisters, Grainne (a musician) and Shevaun (a dancer). During those adolescence summers, she wrote poetry and struck up a friendship with a man sixteen years her elder. Joseph Walsh had come to the town after qualifying as a doctor, and one source says he initially lived in the Mining Manager’s House on the edge of the town. They married in Dublin in 1930 when Troy was twenty and two children followed.
Troy wrote her first novel, Mount Prospect, in 1936. The kind people at the National Library have tracked down a copy for me, after years of searching. The hefty 350-page book is dedicated to ‘Joe, in love and friendship.’
Is Joe Walsh the model for Dr. Jim Dallas, whom the youngest daughter of the house, Mary Kennefick, meets on the beach in the novel of Mount Prospect?
In the novel, Mary escapes to the beach on her bike where she takes off her coat, shoes and stockings and burrows into the sand to enjoy the sun. She is taken aback by the arrival of the local doctor, but gradually reveals to the reader that she has been in love with him since he came to her home to treat a servant when she was only a girl. She is filled with shame when he remembers her mottled legs and untidy plaits. Mary’s desire for this man is overt. They swim together; he kisses her.
Troy writes of Mary’s awakening passion:
He stood with his back to her, a towel about his loins. His wet, white body caused a queer contraction inside her. She was frightened. She did not understand. A part of her seemed to move with independent life…
It goes on: Racy stuff. Far too racy for the Irish censors, but it was a huge hit in the UK and Europe.
Mary and Dr. Dallas begin an illicit relationship and in the tragedy of the novel, it comes to naught. In the dramatic adaptation for the Abbey Theatre, the character of Dr. Dallas is removed completely, as are any intimations of Mary’s personal life. Troy’s novel was banned for its apparent immorality; female desire was all but excised from the play. I’ll never know if she excised it for fear the Board would refuse the play, or if she suppressed her own story.
Troy’s ending was happier than Mary’s. In her papers at the National Library, I found an early love letter from Joe to his wife, where he expresses concern about her living happily in desolate Bunmahon. While they eventually lived much of their lives in nearby Clonmel, they always spent time in Bunmahon and, after her husband’s death, Troy returned there. I went to see the neat house in the middle of Osborne Terrace where she retired to write and see out her days.
Joseph Walsh was a GP and a coroner. It’s amazing how often I’m offered documentation pertaining to the men in their lives when I research these women. The very helpful librarian in Dungarvan (Waterford County Museum) offered legal reports written by her father (Justice Troy) or coroner’s reports by her husband (Walsh). But while Dr. Walsh was taking his scalpel to the dead of Waterford, his wife was taking a scalpel to the living. There’s a ferocity to her writing, particularly the early work and the play, Mount Prospect, that’s truly chilling.
But could that be my fever passing?
Next time, more on the grand house that may have inspired Mount Prospect and the illicit relationships in Bunmahon…