Between Foxrock and the Anvil – Frank McNally on Samuel Beckett’s Cooldrinagh

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There’s no doubt that Samuel Beckett was joking when, as reported in our Properties section yesterday, he told a subsequent owner of Foxrock’s former family home, “If you ever meet my ghost in the house or on the grounds, give him my regards.

But the inhabitants of “Cooldrinagh” during Beckett’s childhood included a ghost, at least in the opinion of one of the maids, a woman called Bridey, whose belief came to be shared by Beckett’s mother. Beckett, May.

The story is recorded briefly in the writer’s biography of Anthony Cronin, via the Manning family, who were frequent visitors:

“The Mannings thought Bridey was crazy, partly because she was convinced Cooldrinagh was haunted by an old man who was often seen sitting in a chair in the hallway. She eventually convinces May that there was some sort of presence there. . .”

As Cronin clarifies, Bridey should not be confused with another Bridget, aka “Bibby”, Beckett’s beloved nanny, though she too was a source of “fairy and ghost stories”.

A Catholic from Meath, Bibby seems to have brought to the future writer the affection he did not receive from his mother, who suffered from a particularly severe form of Protestantism (hence the “emotional malnutrition” of her son, as he was called Mary Manning).

Regardless of the ghosts, his affectionate and later eroticized memories of Bibby haunted Beckett’s thoughts and some of his writings well into adulthood.

Cooldrinagh himself did the same, where he was born in the first floor bedroom with the bay window – a feature often mentioned on property pages. This, too, remained a lingering presence long after he was gone.

Another feature beloved by property writers, the 1.1-acre southwest-facing gardens, variously described this week as “mature,” “manicured” and the “true gem” of the property, also haunt Beckett’s work.

In his novel Molloy, the metaphysical sleuth Moran lives in a thinly disguised Cooldrinagh, with blossoming lemon verbena as in Foxrock, releasing “a fragrance in which the least of his childish joys and sorrows were and would forever be fragrant.”

Garden larches also figure prominently in his writings, in part because, as fellow biographer James Knowlson notes, they mark the season of his birth. Hence Watt’s lines: “Born dead of night. Long sun sunk behind the larches. New needles turn green.

One larch deserved special mention for its earliness, turning green in spring and brown in fall a week before the others, a fact also mentioned in Watt.

It’s tempting to wonder how Beckett himself would have written the ads for his former home. As a young man, he briefly considered a job as an editor. And his talent for catchphrases is evident from the popularity of some of his quotes.

At least one professional tennis player now has a tattoo that reads, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” And you could surely sell marathon shoes or energy drinks on the back of another Beckett mantra: “I have to keep going. I can’t keep going. I’m going to keep going.

As an estate agent selling Cooldrinagh he probably wouldn’t have used words like ‘leafy’, ‘neat’ or ‘situated with easy access to some of South County Dublin’s most respected schools, including Loreto Foxrock”.

He may not have mentioned the wealth of natural light either, if only because apart from the bow windows the house would have been rather darker at the time, mirroring its most famous occupant. “Awash in natural darkness,” Beckett might have boasted.

Usually, whenever he threatened to get sentimental about anything, he ironically controlled himself. Take this passage, again from Watt, in which he reminisces about the gardens, the surrounding countryside and the passing seasons, amid a gradual encroachment of black humor: “. . . the larch turning green every year a week before the others and the red pastures of uneaten ewe placentas and the long summer days and the freshly mown hay and the wood pigeon in the morning and the cuckoo clock in the afternoon and the rattle of the broom in the evening and the wasps in the jam and the smell of the gorse and the look of the gorse and the falling apples and the children walking in the dead leaves and the larches which turn brown a week before the others and the chestnuts which fall and the howling winds and the sea breaking the pier and the first fires and the clogs on the road and the voracious whistling of the postman The roses are blooming in Picardy and the standard oil lamp and of course the snow and to be sure the sleet and bless your heart the slush and every fourth year, the February meltdown and the endless April showers and the crocuses, and then the whole damn thing starting all over again.

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