More Than Bricks and Mortar - The Irish Times

Packing away the faded coffee tins, forgotten photographs and dog-eared books that litter my grandparents’ old house, something doesn’t feel right. The rooms seem unrecognisably empty, silent and small. For once, my mother and I are the only ones at 146 Seafield Road East.

This redbrick house in Clontarf, 120 metres from Dublin Bay, is where my grandparents raised eight children, in turn yielding another 18 offspring, who have all spent their lives gathering here for wakes, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries.

To probe its back-stories is to hear of Brendan Behan’s father decorating the place, Neil Jordan jamming in the kitchen, singer Clifford T. Ward dropping in for some Irish stew, and my grandmother rejecting a Jack B. Yeats painting because she wouldn’t have a donkey on the wall.

But those are just anecdotes. The real story is of two teenagers who met in 1936: Moya Henry, a 19-year-old Sligo woman studying maths in UCD, and Séamus O’Brien, a 17-year-old schoolboy from Blackrock.

Moya refused to date any man who drank, so a smitten Séamus pledged himself as a Pioneer and vowed never to touch a drop again. He shelved plans for college so he could save up to marry her, working as a travelling salesman for the family’s leather business.

After six years of courtship, Moya looked at every available house from Foxrock to Drumcondra, eventually falling in love with Seafield Road for its view of the sea and the bridge to Bull Island. They became the first tenants after their honeymoon and remained here through 63 years of marriage (Séamus died in 2005, Moya in 2007.)

The house has now been sold after several years on the market and, since memories perish quicker than buildings, I sought to capture some by interviewing all eight O’Brien siblings: Anne, Barry, Ken, Derry, Orlaith (my mum), Keelin, Feena and Moya.

They are remarkably different people, so tapping into their collective memory has meant wading into family politics, revelations and regrets. There have been conflicting tales and contradicting dates, eyes welling and voices catching, but enough conferring to ensure any attempt at rewriting the past is quickly exposed.

“Do they admit I kept the family alive?”

“I’m still getting blamed for that?”

“Turn that thing off and I’ll tell you the whole story.”

From the beginning, my grandmother cultivated a social hub where the key was permanently left in the front door. There was a constant influx of friends, schoolmates, neighbours, churchgoers, pub-crawlers and, in later years, students my grandmother tutored as well as patients from the psychiatric centre where she volunteered.

Then there were the animals: rabbits, a tortoise, hedgehogs, dogs, guinea pigs, a budgie, fish and the odd sick horse.

Privacy was non-existent but the lack of protocol proved disarming. If the person you were after wasn’t in, you could make a cup of tea and root through the fridge. It was a home where the only rule was that you never told a lie; a home where the only punishment was knowing you’d let your parents down.

But while traffic never diminished, the leather business did. Hardship followed. Moya returned to teaching and the family trundled on, pawning what they could and running up tabs with kind shopkeepers. There was talk of moving but my grandmother wouldn’t hear of it, proclaiming her love for every last brick in the house.

The three boys camped together in the attic, an arrangement Derry likens to being in the Waltons – “G’night ma!” – though his sisters remember it as a reign of terror from above. The lads would bug conversations, tap phone calls and rig pulleys so that ‘ghosts’ frightened anyone climbing the stairs.

There would be fights over Jackie magazines and Dell comics, forbidden clothes would be fished out of padlocked cupboards and you had to guard your breakfast from thieves around the table.

The house overflowed with music. When Anne began dating a naval officer and Barry became a trans-Atlantic pilot, records trickled back from around the world – exclusive new sounds that Ken, a technical whiz, broadcast from the family’s in-house pirate radio station.

Combined with the plays staged in the garage, the motorbikes disassembled in the kitchen and the street’s first TV sitting in the living room, competition to be the star attraction was fierce. But Séamus and Moya raised them as equals, ensuring they self-funded their way through university, worked for a living and achieved independence.

Even as the siblings splintered into different counties and countries, churning out grandchildren, the house remained a mooring. To me, Sheanna (a version of ‘sean ma’) was a tiny woman with big glasses, brimming with advice and affection. ‘Sheamie’, a selfless soul never without a suit and tie, seemed stooped with the experience of someone who had seen it all, forever communicating in snatches of poetry that sounded as old as Ireland.

Whenever new faces appeared at Christmas – “strays” with nowhere to go – I just accepted it without question. Perhaps I was too preoccupied with seven aunts and uncles’ worth of selection boxes. But in time I realised that people like my father saw the place as an overwhelming madhouse. Bringing a girlfriend over always seemed risky. Still, it was our version of normal.

Now that the end is here, the family is split between those ready to move on and those reluctant to let go. One cousin has named his house ‘Seafield’ in tribute, while others wish they could buy the property, having spent the happiest days of their lives here. Researching the stories has helped understand why.

Sifting through the last of my grandparents’ belongings – the hat he doffed at passers-by, the Red Cross certificate she earned in 1941 – a certain poignancy hangs in the stillness. But then the door swings open.

Relatives stream in. The house grows animated once more, producing laughter and ructions even as the past gets packed away. Maybe, I think, it’s the people rather than the building. Maybe the real life of a house lies elsewhere.