The Full Shilling: A Memoir
Page Count: 152
Publication Date: Sunday, February 01, 2009
Cover Artwork: Photo of the author's mother
About this Book
James Liddy's memoir The Full Shilling follows The Doctor's House (Salmon, 2004), but takes a different perspective, exploring the world of Liddy's parents and their friends in mid-twentieth century Ireland. He presents an extensive gallery of portraits of those he knew in Ireland and the U.S. including his peers at U.C.D. Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O'Brien, Francis Stuart, Thomas MacGreevey, Michael Hartnett, Noel Browne appear on these pages together with many senior American writers and literary figures. The memoir, unusually (in keeping with Liddy's eccentric style), includes short stories set in the years of his growing up in Ireland. The effect is personal, exhilarating and definitely more than nostalgic.
James Liddy was a senior literary figure whose influence extended way beyond Ireland; adding to the body of superior work by Irish writers living abroad. He was born in Lr. Pembroke St., Dublin, in 1934. His parents hailed from the cities of Limerick and New York. He lived in Coolgreany, County Wexford, intermittently from 1941 to 2000. His books include Blue Mountain (Dolmen), A Munster Song of Love and War (White Rabbit), Corca Bascinn (Dolmen), Baudelaire's Bar Flowers (Capra/White Rabbit), Collected Poems (Creighton University), Gold Set Dancing (Salmon, 2000), Wexford and Arcady (Arlen House, 2009), and Askeaton Sequence (Arlen House, 2009). For over thirty years, he lived in Milwaukee where he was a Professor in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and taught creative writing, and Irish and Beat literature. James Liddy: A Critical Study, by Brian Arkins, was published by Arlen House in 2001. James Liddy died at his home in the United States on 5th November 2008 after a short illness.
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An Excerpt from The Full Shilling: A Memoir
The Old Shelbourne Hotel
Grand hotels remain the monuments of the middle-class upper- class gilded age that began in the mid 19th century and petered out in the 1930s, of which an after taste persisted until after the Second World War. By then this aristocrat-tinged medium high culture was giving away to economic pressure and a more business-like set of manners. I was as a child and indeed later privileged-privileged is the exact word-to enter this world through my mother's connection to the Shelbourne Hotel. After the war she went there from the country and sometimes stayed overnight; before that she had lived in the hotel for a few years and was married from it in 1931 at Westland Row church (this last fact has an echo of Mr. Harding in George Moore's Drama in Muslin, "Then you don't know the famous Shelbourne Hotel! All the events of life are accomplished here. People live here and die here, and flirt here, and, I was going to say, marry here..."). My mother's continuous memory of a long hotel era resulted in extensive reminiscence which I seek to recall.
She told me dinner was two shillings, the charge for her room five pounds a week. There were few permanent guests; a couple she remembered staying there was Sir Thomas Grattan Esmonde and his second American wife. She used see the young Kate O'Brien with her sister from Limerick. One dressed for evening dinner though the food was uninviting; what she recollected as remarkable was the lobster mayonnaise whose quality she never found in any other restaurant. She said living in the Shelbourne then was quiet, the hotel did not do so very well, times were hard for people. On her wedding day she planned to have a small reception in her bedroom-when her party got back from the church the bottles of brandy, whiskey, and gin had disappeared from the table.
My early memories of the Shelbourne confirm the glittering background, the theatrical sense of stage on the lower floors and the nearly invisible parade of intrigue reminiscent of the sumptuous accounts of the resort hotel on the Normandy coast in Remembrance of Things Past. The Writing Room where the horseshoe bar was placed later was perhaps more reserved for the ladies and their privacy than for salesmen writing up their orders. Guests went up a stairs at the far end of that room over to a Georgian interior, initially a house not part of the hotel, No. 32 St. Stephen's Green where glowed a Georgian cocktail lounge at which a martini or a white lady could be ordered. There one could be at peace as an American tourist.
As children my sister and I entered the revolving door past the well known porters and the first thing we made for was the lift. It was on a pulley which we used to play with while the strange cage was in motion; when it returned we pestered the liftman, a tubby little man in the grey and green uniform, with questions. The Lounge was the centre of the gorgeous establishment. In contrast to the Writing Room which was Dresden in style, duck egg blue walls with plaques, the Lounge was decidedly Victorian with a frieze, flock wallpaper, a large mirror over the fireplace, the Bossi mantelpiece and another large mirror at the other end of the room underneath which was a serving table with a white tablecloth.
The most prominent waiter was Bill, a stocky amiable character who always remembered us, but mother's favourite was the last of the German waiters, Fred. German waiters had been for a long period the distinctive feature of Shelbourne culture; in Drama in Muslin, Moore surveys the scene of the debutantes leaving for the Castle: "On the first landing, about the winter garden, a crowd of German waiters, housemaids. . . ." Elizabeth Bowen tells in her history of the hotel the narrative of their internment as enemy aliens in the first World War, a fate that was avoided in the second. There is even the rumour that Hitler's half-brother was a member of the staff for a while.
Events at Christmases, during or after the hostilities, were intense to the eye of childhood. My sister and I were carrying balloons from Brown Thomas, holding on to them carefully, as we made our way up Grafton Street to St. Stephen's Green. I lost mine to the sky outside Tyson's, Nora got through the door and into the Lounge before she let go of her balloon. It sailed over the tea table, the couch, to the plaster ceiling. Fred and Bill rushed out, an apprentice waiter brought a ladder while the balloon reposed up there too dominating for laughter. The Lounge resumed its cups and saucers, mother took her scotch while we contemplated the pot of tea and thin, delicate, sandwiches. Fred stopped by and regarded me, "That's quite a child you have there, Madame." Then they moved to their fervent topic as mother lamented, "It doesn't look so good, Fred, can Hitler be making the same mistake in a Russian winter as Napoleon?" "Yes, Madame, we are as damn stupid as the French but Napoleon was only a soldier, Hitler is a politician and knows what to do even in snow. And God is on his side." Fred bowed and Nora and I ran out to the lift, we pulled at the rope, skipped into the cage, but it did not move.
There were more connections. Father went up to interview for a medical job in Dublin with the Appointments Commission; he spent the night in the Shelbourne and was awoken by heavy noise. He looked out the window and watched the fire and smoke of the Luftwaffe blasting the North Strand, he ducked his head back in quickly. Shortly afterwards mother brought us up again to the hotel. Before she left, worried about food, not having much left on the ration cards, she begged the local Creamery Manager for an extra illegal pound of butter. She had taken a room facing the Green, and left the precious butter on the window sill to cool. It was requisitioned by the seagulls.
Mother knew society, she became very adroit at pointing out personalities using the Lounge. One of the first named to me was Sir Shane Leslie whom she said was a first cousin of Winston Churchill. He was dressed in a kilt but mother pointed to his knees, "I wish when they wore kilts they would wash their knees." The tweedy gentleman in the corner she identified as Lord Adare, "an aide-de camp to the last Viceroy of Ireland." She recognised James Johnson Sweeney, the New York connoisseur and art administrator, whom she had met on a Transatlantic liner two days before in Cobh. There were the perennials, Robert Briscoe in his bow tie, Tom MacGreevey sometimes in his cape, Billy Wicklow Hanoverian looking in his blue or green tweed suit, Leo Whelan the painter somewhat worse for wear.
The Shelbourne Lounge was a House of History. I felt about this sacred space what Osip Mandelstam wrote in relation to his city, "It always seemed to me that in Petersburg something very splendid and solemn was absolutely about to happen." But other areas of the building had played their part. In a first floor sitting room, No. 112, the Constitution of the Irish Free State was drafted. Mother and I in the early 1950's spent a night in this room. Maud Gonne had died and mother on a whim insisted on going to the funeral, she had often listened to her oratory and that of Mrs. Despard in O'Connell Street in an earlier period. We drove from Donnybrook church to Glasnevin through the saluting Gardai at traffic lights, uncomfortably close behind the hearse. That night there was no room in the Inn, so we were escorted up to the historic chamber where beds had been made up for us. As I lay there I remembered what the Pope O' Mahony had told me about the death of John Redmond in the Shelbourne: out through his window Redmond heard the crowd cheering the procession of Constance Markievicz on her release from an English prison and he turned his face to the wall. I wondered in what room this tragic scene had taken place.
In later years I often returned to the Lounge, to meet people or to indulge in celebrations like the fearful and awesome nights after an international rugby match. A quick sketch of such encounters would detail having an unusual tea with Patrick Kavanagh who commented as James Pope Hennessy walked by, "A woman has nothing to fear from such a man." I stood with Liam Miller by the registration desk as Richard Ellman checked out; I noticed the curious fact that his cheque book was printed in the Irish language. I had tea too with the Californian poet Brother Antoninus who was captivated by the sing-song voices the pages used to broadcast messages in the Lounge, "The queens must really be turned on by these guys." I was often in company here, with John Ashbery, with the American-Canadian writers Stan Persky and George Stanley, or with Tom Ronan, my mother's first cousin, the London correspondent of The New York Times who came over for elections.
In her majestic book on the Shelbourne, Elizabeth Bowen describes her subject on the first page, "Tall as a cliff, but more genial. . . ." May these characteristics continue to mingle. I say my last reminiscence. In 1951 I saw a pile of Bowen's book for sale on the registration desk A few years later I collected her in the Lounge and we walked across St. Stephen's Green to her talk to the U.C.D English Literature Society. She was affability tinged with restraint, like her hotel.