A gentle kick under the table

Week IV

If Sylvia Plath was hoping for some kind of reprochement between herself and her husband Ted Hughes during their stay with Richard Murphy at Cleggan, Co Galway, she was to be quickly disillusioned. In fact she would be abandoned, and plunged into despair.

Before she and Ted set out for Ireland in September 1962, they were already a broken couple. Ted Hughes and Assia Wevill had fallen recklessly in love in London. Ted clearly had no interest in what Sylvia longed for: ‘a boat and a sea’, and ‘a no-squalling babies’ holiday in the West of Ireland.

On September 14, the day after they arrived, there was a forecast of rain and south-easterly wind, making the sea too rough for a pleasant cruise. Instead Murphy took them to see Lady Gegory’s Coole Park and Yeats’ tower at Ballylee.

Murphy’s only transport was a seven-horsepower minivan, used for selling fish that he and Seamus Coyne (who helped him with the boat ), caught. Sylvia sat in the front, talking about marriage (Murphy was divorced from his former wife Patsy Strang ), while Ted sat on the floor in the back talking to Seamus about poachers, guns and fishing.

At Coole Murphy pointed out the famous autograph tree, where Augusta Gregory asked her literary guests to carve their initials. Some are indecipherable today, but many are still visible including WB Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, AE (George Russell ), and others. Loyal Sylvia, despite her fragile state, looked at her husband and said that his initials deserved to be in that company; in fact he was a better poet than some of them. Ted Hughes would have happily obliged only that the spiked railings around the tree looked too dangerous to climb over.

Yeats’ tower at Ballylee at that time was neglected for 34 years. Since 1929 the Yeats’ family had stopped staying there. The poet was getting old, and he preferred the warmth of the south of France. It was a ruin when Yeats bought it in 1916. He had it restored and made comfortable for summer holidays by the architect William A Scott.

Now, before a second restoration by Bord Failte (in the mid 1960s ) Richard Murphy’s distinguished visitors arrived. They were delighted by what they saw. As they climbed the spiral stairs, jackdaws fled protesting loudly. From the top Sylvia threw coins down into the river. Then they noticed the moss-coated apple tree (planted by Yeats’ wife George ), bearing a heavy crop of bright red cookers. Ted and Sylvia both insisted they they should steal them. Murphy protested. Ted said that they would make good apple-pies, enough for all the winter. They heaved Seamus up into the tree to shake the branches, and went to work among the nettles picking up the fallen apples. Murphy asked: ‘Why are you doing this?’

Ted Hughes replied: “ When you come to a place like this you have to violate it.”*

House hunting

Murphy brought them out to Innishboffin on board his Ave Maria, where they stayed for the day until collected again in the late afternoon. During the six miles across open water with a strong current and an ocean swell, Sylvia lay prone on the foredeck, leaning out over the prow. Murphy thought she resembled ‘a triumphal figurehead, inhaling the sea air ecstatically, as if she were challanging the ocean to rise up and claim her.’

She confided her marriage woes to Murphy. She believed that a legal separation rather than a divorce was the best solution. She could not imagine either Ted or herself truly married to anyone else. Their union had been so complete, on every level, that she felt that nothing could destroy this.

She mentioned that Ted was planning to go to Spain for a time, and that she would like to rent a house by the sea in Connemara. Ted clearly thought this was a good idea, and Murphy took them to see several houses in the neighborhood. Eventually Sylvia was satisfied with one; and, with great decisiveness, signed a tenancy agreement with Kitty Marriott beginning on November 1.

A healing gift?

Murphy invited the poet Tom Kinsella from Dublin to drive down to dinner which was a great success. Kinsella, who later left the civil service to enjoy a successful academic career in America, rose to the occasion. Sylvia and Ted loved his good nature, strong intelligence and barbed wit. As the meal went on and the wine flowed Murphy was alarmed to feel Sylvia giving him a gentle kick under the table. The intention was clear. Poor Sylvia anxious and defenseless at her husband’s behaviour, needed the comfort that Murphy might offer, and the life-style that he obviously enjoyed. It could have been the healing gift that she needed; but Murphy made it clear he was not interested. ‘I was happy in Cleggan, and didn’t want to cause a scandal that might upset my precarious footing as an outsider, a divorced protestant with a British accent in a village under the sway of a priest who had no liking for me or for Protestants or for Brits.’

Sylvia must have felt totally alone.

Next week: Ted Hughes vanishes

Notes: *What did Hughes mean by that remark? it seems an outrageous thing to say; but may have been said due to Hughes’ state of mind at the time. After Sylvia’s Plath’s suicide Hughes was devastated. And was so for many years. But he came in for savage criticism for his alleged treatment of her. Murphy gave the apple incident to a biographer of Plath’s, Anne Stevenson. However, in 1987 Olwyn Hughes, Ted’s sister and agent, begged Murphy to put the Plath myth, and her visit to Connemara, into perspective. Furthermore, Ted rang and asked Murphy to give Stevenson ‘a simple record of the facts’, because, he said, there were wild stories circulating in America that he had taken Sylvia to the west of Ireland, and abandoned her there with no money while he had gone off to shoot grouse. He asked Murphy to delete his remark about ‘violating ‘ the apple tree. In a convoluting explanation he suggested the phrase was ‘a facetious antithetical inversion of the obvious in a West Yorkshire style of hyperbole, which if taken out of context could do him harm. He regretted not having spoken about the ‘golden apples of the sun, the silver apples of the moon’, one of Yeats’ famous lines.

I am taking this story from The Kick - A Memoir of the poet Richard Murphy, republished by Cork University press, on sale €19.95.

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