Monday, December 31, 2012

Pauline Fagan, Poet

"I couldn't see anything, but I heard this voice and it was an experience of pure music."

The first time Pauline Fagan heard Seamus Heaney speak, she couldn't see him because she was at the back of a crowd of people in Boston College. And she didn't understand all the words, because she was only seven years old. But ever since she has loved poetry. Pauline had been brought to the reading by her father Joe, a Librarian in the College. She had gone because it meant she could stay up beyond her bedtime. "But after that Dad and I were partners in crime, and we went to many other similar things."

Pauline Fagan is best known to most Kilcullen people as the bubbly woman who works in the Manna shop at Bridge Camphill. There's a trace of Boston still in her accent. Probably bits of Galway, Cork and Donegal too. And the Kilcullen where she and her siblings spent virtually every summer as they grew up, their parents determined that they wouldn't forget where they came from, wherever they might wander.

Wandering is in their blood. Pauline's mother Eileen is sister to Bernard Berney in the Chemists, and to Jim and Tom in the Saddlery. She travelled to America in the early 60s, among many bringing their particularly prized Irish nursing skills to a large and rich country where these were in short supply. She met Joe Fagan there, ironically through mutual friends from Newbridge, the Higgins pub family. Joe's own forebears had left Ireland in the Famine times, but he had been in Ireland in 1957, pursuing an interest in horses, when he was befriended by Ted and Pat Higgins. "My lovely Mum had completed a trip across America, on the '99 Days for $99' promotion by the Greyhound Bus company. She was within three months of returning to Ireland when she met Joe, and they married in Kilcullen in 1965."

Joe and his brothers had all served in the forces, and courtesy of the GI Bill had been able to get university education. "My Dad was an extraordinary man. He decided early on that he wanted to go to private school, and he worked from the time he was 11 to help pay his way through Boston College High School, run by the Jesuits. He later went to Boston College itself, and afterwards got his Masters in Library Science in Simmons College. Then he took a job in Boston College Library, which he held for nigh on 50 years."

Pauline was Joe and Eileen's first-born of four, with a brother Joe and two sisters Marie and Annie. "All the years we were growing up, our parents' priority was to get us back home as often as possible to Granny and Grandad, and all the aunts and uncles and cousins." They came to Kilcullen every other summer when it was just their Dad working, then every year when Eileen went back to nursing.

On each side of the Atlantic, the life of the cousins was pretty similar. In Boston, Pauline and her brother and sisters walked to the parochial school, and later went to a small High School. "In a way it was a strange upbringing. When we were in Boston, we were Irish. When we came to Kilcullen, we were Yanks. In Kilcullen, sent for messages by my grandmother, I tripped up on silly things like biscuits and cookies. Now, when I see the Americanisms common here, I say 'there goes the language'."

Those summers in Kilcullen cemented Pauline's love affair with Ireland, though she was already tapped into something very deep here. "It was a sense of self, a sense of place, of knowing where you come from. The people in Kilcullen were family, but they were also my greatest friends. And when I went to art college in Boston, I knew that I could have this tremendous creative life, but I needed to be grounded. I didn't think I was going to be particularly grounded in the States. So much of me was based on the experiences I had here, and I didn't have the faith that I would find something equally rich there."

Pauline had applied to the National College of Art & Design in Ireland, but they turned her down. She had, fortunately, been accepted by a number of colleges in the US. "I didn't want to get myself tied up with student loans, and Massachusetts College of Art was the only state-run one. Fees were low and I could live at home, so I had a very wonderful five years getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Today though, do I produce visual art? No, I write."

She does. But getting to do that has been, still is, a long journey. She learned something that every writer knows, life can get in the way. "I got a job in the Library at Harvard. Worked there for a year, lived at home. The job was tremendous, but the whole point was to earn enough money to come back here." Which she did, towards the end of 1990. She got a job through the FAS scheme, working in a building beside the Library in Newbridge on old Census records.

"Newbridge in the depths of winter was just misery. But I had a copy of Ulysses given to me by Lilian Healy, and I spent the month of February 1991 in my flat on Main Street in Kilcullen, reading it. It was a glorious thing. Difficult in places, but a wonderful thing to do." In the middle of that summer, though, she began to have doubts. Wondering what was happening back in the States, and was she doing the right thing? "I headed back, and within a fortnight knew that this was a mistake. And that it would take me a year and a half to get home to Ireland."

It was a mistake not without its advantages. Joe Fagan enjoyed being a part of the academic life, and had a great talent for finding information for people. And one of the perks of his post was educational opportunities for his family. "Though there was never any pressure on us to do it, we all ended up taking classes there at some point. I used the time back in Boston to take Creative Writing." Over the summer, cousins from Kilcullen came and went, including Emma Berney. "When she was going back in September, I told her she might see me again sooner than she expected."

That was more prescient than even Pauline herself realised. That Christmas her mother gave her part of a family bequest she had received. Which fortuitously was the price of a ticket back to Ireland. "It was a one way ticket, and she knew what she was doing, again that generosity of spirit of my parents. She had left, and I was going back. America was good for her, but I knew from the time I arrived back this time, that this was it."

Pauline mentions often that generosity of spirit which she has encountered all through her life. Back in Kilcullen it clicked in again, with her uncle Bernard Berney and Mary. "I was like the guest who came for dinner, and stayed. For five and a half years. It was like being fostered, and who gets fostered at 26? But it was tremendous to be part of that family, to be one of the household."

She got stuck in to various things, something she figures is very Irish. "In America, it seems that you become an expert in your field, and then that's it. In Ireland there's a whole breadth of things to do." So she dug and planted a herb garden for Mary Berney. She learned how to knit. Phena Bermingham got her involved in the Suncroft Monday Club for unemployed people, where Pauline taught some creative writing. "I got a job through FAS in the Library in the Holy Family Secondary School library in Newbridge, which was just wonderful." A couple of years working in the garden at Bridge Camphill, where the late Dermot O'Shea was in charge, was another 'wonderful period'. "Dermot and Margaret were also another family to me."

But the wander bug hit again, after a stint working in Bernard's Chemist shop. A friend mentioned a job on offer at an 'Aran Sweater Museum' on Inis Mor in the Aran Islands. "I had visited the island before, and wondered at the time what it would be like to stay through a winter. So I took the job." It turned out to be no more than a jumper shop, but it was causing some angst. "A new business, outsiders coming in. There were protests, people ringing Liveline." In something of a panic, she phoned home. Her cousin John Berney 'kind of talked me down'. She stayed, time passed. In the middle of summer, Pauline called home again and told her cousin Laura that she didn't think things were working. "Laura was just 17, but had the wisest head I know. She asked me what might have changed in Kilcullen in a couple of months that made it the right place to come back to."

So she stayed again. And in the autumn, found her 'lovely life partner' Paul. Welsh born, a glazier by trade but traditional musician in his soul, he plays the accordion. "He had actually arrived on Aran the same time as me, but it took until then for us to meet up."

Pauline and Paul stayed on Inis Mor until 2000, then moved to Clonakilty in Co Cork, 'which was really good for him, as there was lots of music'. Pauline worked in cafes and a yoghurt factory, and baked for the Thursday Farmers Market as well as getting involved in a creative writing group. "There I heard of a poetry workshop in Falcarragh in Donegal. I got a loan and went for the ten days and at the end they offered me a Masters course in Creative Writing, scholarship funding to be provided. I rang Paul, what did he think? He was always up for adventure, said we'd do it."

Pauline had been on a panel for a library job in Clonakilty. In one of life's little jokes, a temporary offer came up when they had arrived in Donegal. "I called my Dad from a phone box in Falcarragh and asked for his advice. He so prized education that he told me I should continue with what I was doing. He sent me books for the course, and I can still remember boxes and boxes arriving from the University of California Press. Beautiful books which I couldn't have afforded."

They lived near Gweedore, in a community where they couldn't have been made more welcome and which was scenically wonderful. "We could see the lights of Tory from our sitting room window." By September 2004 Pauline had completed her Masters, while Paul had delved deep into the local traditional music scene. They were also flat broke. It was time to come home again. Within weeks, Paul had work with Newbridge Glass, and Pauline found herself back in the bosom of a previous 'family'. "I was walking down the street past Wixtead's Fruit & Vegetable shop and thinking to myself that working somewhere like that would be nice. Then, in An Tearmann, I found a notice looking for someone interested in running a Camphill vegetable shop. Talk about being careful what you wish for!"

During the last nine years, there have been various personal and family milestones. Her sister Annie married in 2006. Pauline and Paul tied the knot in 2007, back on Inis Mor, and they have settled out in Narraghmore. Her father died in 2010, at the age of 84. "He had retired in his early 70s and himself and Mum had some tremendous years together, travelling to places like Germany and France, and to Greece to follow his schoolboy interest in the Classics. And, of course, they'd be home to Kilcullen two or three times a year."

Joe was slowing down a year or so before he died. Pauline took time from Camphill in the autumn of 2009 to be with him, returning here in January of the following year. Between then and May, when he passed on, relatives and friends visited Boston regularly. "That was all made possible by my Mum. They had decided between them how he wanted his last bit of life to be, at home with family and friends. As it should be."

Pauline misses terribly the 'quiet man who wasn't afraid to be who he was'. "An absolutely gorgeous man who inspired great loyalty, he was also a very funny man, and I read his letters regularly. I have them tucked into books all around the house, so I never know when I'll come across one. I read them and he is absolutely so alive on the page. He had a great voice."

And Pauline's own voice? Do many hear that, in the very lyrical quality of her poetry and occasional prose? Well, not really, as she admits to keeping her work very private and is loth to let it out into the jungle of publishing. Yet, writing is what drives her. "It is absolutely how I think about myself in my own private heart. It is not how I have supported myself, but if you ask me who I am, the answer is, I write. If I am going to keep myself well and ticking over, I must put pen to paper."

In recent years her writing has often related to family births, marriages, and the funerals. "It is a great honour to be asked to contribute in that way. When Emma was married, when John was. These are my siblings." And the writing is richer, fuller than when, years ago, she was describing the misery of winter on Newbridge Main Street. "I was really writing weather reports then, which maybe can be a little bit beautiful but don't tell you a lot about what's really going on underneath. Now, perhaps there's a fuller picture."

Pauline admits to never having had a life plan ("apart from my original plan to get back to Kilcullen"). But life has worked something out itself for her. "I'm happy. I consider myself to be very fortunate. I feel grounded in a way that I always wanted to be. I love my work in the shop in Camphill, what happens there helps people to thrive with their lives. I have a wonderful life companion, and I have this lovely quiet satellite life out in Narraghmore."

She runs in Narraghmore, in the morning, and where she runs is reflective of her life's pattern. "Different spots, different moments on the road, anybody watching me will see that sometimes I give a little wave, or put my hands together at different points. I'm saying 'hello' to the ones that are gone." And the wind of her running is perhaps a reminder of the constant winds on Inis Mor, where it is said all souls pass over on their way to … wherever.

Running is to Pauline like her writing, a spiritual practice. "Some people go to Mass. I go out and I run, or I sit down and write. All my poems are praise pieces, really, to the sheer wonder of being alive in the world."

Does she think it is praise to someone, or some greater entity out there, managing it all?

"I don't know," she says after a long pause. "But it's all glorious."

Monday, December 24, 2012

Dick Dunphy, Actor

Dick Dunphy has probably been treading the boards longer than anyone else in Kilcullen—his first play with Kilcullen Drama Group was in 1959, which makes him possibly the only current actor in the group who played opposite some the stalwarts of a previous drama generation in Kilcullen.

"There was Bill Malone, and Julia Morris, for instance. Bill was a particularly fine comic actor, with a sense of timing like they used to talk about Jimmy O'Dea having. But Bill was also hard to play opposite, because he wasn't one to learn lines. He ad-libbed a lot, and you had to be prepared for anything ..."

When Dick first arrived in Kilcullen in the late fifties, an employee of the Dublin & District Milk Board, he stayed initially in Coleman's boarding house. And, as 'blow-ins' did in those days, he looked around to see what he could join.

"At the time there were quite a few things, the usual football clubs as well as very active tennis and billiards clubs, and there was a very busy handball alley. I had arrived in August, and one of the first things I noticed was how people would gather on the bank of the Liffey, in the field over the Jockey Style. In the afternoons and evenings they'd be sitting, and swimming, and diving from the board set up by Ken Urquhart.

"And I suppose one man who stands out in my mind most of all was Tom Berney of Sunnyside. He would dive off that board when he was maybe sixty, and he was the only guy in his generation who played handball and that kind of thing, against the rest of us who were all much younger. He was a terrific guy, there's no doubt in the world about it."

But Dick also knew that drama was a very good social outlet for a young man new on the scene, and he decided to join up. "You met women there, for a start. And I'd been in a few plays in school, and I liked it, and so in a sense I had a little bit of background in it."

His first performance was in 'Two for the Road', directed by Fr Smith. But it wasn't as if that immediately made him a star. Certainly when he came up against the man who was to become another Kilcullen Drama group legend in his own lifetime, albeit in a different discipline.

"I met Paddy Melia, and he asked me in to read for a play. In fairness, I read it very badly, and he told me: 'Don't worry about it, Dick, not everybody is cut out to be an actor'. Well, a couple of years after, he came to me saying he had just the part for me. I reminded him of what he'd said before, that he'd dismissed me out of hand, and I told him he must be badly stuck. 'I am', he said.

"He'd just had practically every man out of McTernan's pub in to read, and hadn't found one to suit."

Certainly, Paddy Melia being 'badly stuck' was Kilcullen's gain, because, over the years since, Dick Dunphy has become almost a fixture in Kilcullen drama. It is almost as if a set wouldn't be properly dressed unless he appeared on it at some part of a performance. And, fortunately, he's never got tired of it, and still isn't even at the age of sixty-seven.

"There's something about it, that you can do it at any age. After doing it all my life, it would be very hard for me to stop it. That said, though, there's no way that you can mop up lines at sixty like you can at twenty. At twenty you hardly pick up a script outside of rehearsal, but when you get on in years you have to sit down and study it at home."

He says bluntly that he does it 'for the enjoyment', and for the 'buzz' that he gets when people express their satisfaction with what he has done. And if the enjoyment went out of it, he says he'd 'be gone'. But just because it is enjoyment doesn't mean that it isn't hard work.

"I always take it seriously, and I put my heart into it. At the end of a run, my script is a rag, and if I ever fall on my face in a performance, it's not for the want of the work I put into it."

He gives to it an almost professional dedication, but he never had any wish to be a professional, not least because acting doesn't give the security of the civil service. "Only the top five or ten percent make a decent living, and I don't think that I could have accepted the insecurity ... not to mind the fact that I don't think I could have done it."

Now retired, Dick moved out some years ago from the Square in Kilcullen to near Cut Bush, but he remains a classic case of a 'blow-in' becoming a Kilcullenite through-and-through in his own generation.

"I couldn't leave Kilcullen now, I'd be like a stranger going back to where I came from in County Waterford. It's more than just the drama; everything you do in a place, it all comes together, gives you a kind of whole existence.

"You're here, and you have all these props. You pick them up over the years, and if any of them fall away, you become a lesser person."

But, of course, by their very nature props are also themselves held up by what they support, and Dick Dunphy is himself a great example of the many people who are the props of Kilcullen, supporting it as the kind of place that all of us here can call 'home'.

A version of this article was first published on A Kilcullen Diary in April 2005.